Noises from backstage during a performance — i.e. “noises off” — are one of the great bugaboos of live theater. They could be anything: flubbed costume changes, microphone left on, missing prop. They yank us from the dramatic illusion back to plain old, unrehearsed reality. (These days need a new category: “cell phones on,” which have the same effect.)
Pundits have hailed Michael Frayn’s tribute to the perils of the stage, Noises Off, as one of the great farces of all time. What they rarely mention: it’s also one of the most hair-brained, brutal, and exhausting scripts to perform. The piece, especially in act two (of three), calls for controlled chaos: both stopwatch speed and micro-precision. At times four or five actors hurtle across the stage. One false move and, well, noises on.
Also, it’s two plays in one. The Lamb’s Players’ program says it’s June 1976. We’re at the Grand Theatre, Weston-Super Marewill, for the world premiere of Robin Housemonger’s Nothing On. The loopy bedroom farce will play for just one week prior to a National Tour. Wait. World premiere, then hit the road? Whose idiotic idea…?
But we came to Lamb’s to see Noises Off. Turns out it’s a play-inside-the-play, a mad, behind-the-scenes actor’s nightmare where the cast are their characters, themselves, and points in between. What follows is a mega-farce at maybe twice the speed of the one onstage. Everything that can go wrong does, along with just about everything else. It’s as if the entire troupe chanted the “M-word” a capella, and the famous Macbeth curse arrived with a coven of disgruntled associates.
Frayn got the idea back in the 70s while watching a farce from the wings. “It was funnier from behind than in front,” he wrote, “and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind.”
Act one takes place on-stage at midnight. We witness an obviously cursed technical rehearsal. Opening night’s that night. Though the script is brand new, the cast had only two weeks to prepare. Lloyd Dallas, the fuming director, has only begun to frazzle. Simple moves — take a plate of sardines off-stage; pick up the newspaper — become impossible. As things fall apart, Dallas likens himself to the Lord at Creation. Yes, replies Belinda Blair, sanest of the pack. “He had six days. We’ve only got six hours.”
As mindless mistakes evoke laughter, act one reveals the myriad difficulties of live theater. One errant detail could upstage the piece: carry off the phone by mistake. But don’t phones have cords? The goofs and gaffes of act one underscore what follows, by contrast. Act two, a menagerie of farcical shenanigans, must be flawless.
The night I caught the Lamb’s Players show, it was.
Credit director Robert Smyth, movement and fight choreographer Jordan Miller, and the ensemble cast for the incremental mayhem. It’s a Wednesday matinee a month into the tour. We are now backstage. Lamb’s inventive designer Mike Buckley reverses the entire unit set from front to back. Instead of a two story house with large, cheaply furnished living room, we see unpainted wooden flats with identifying markers. This bare bones look includes the actors in Nothing On, as they shed civility and slide toward barbarism. Subtle fissures in their performances and personal relations become fractures.
The tech rehearsal was more polished. The cast is now in frantic mode. They race in and out of the set’s seven doors. Volcanically jealous Garry Lejeune wields a red fire axe, with murder in his heart for Frederick Fellows, whose nose bleeds at the thought of violence. The axe changes hands repeatedly, as does a bottle of whisky, which old, partially deaf Selsdon Mowbray shouldn’t touch, since he’d swill the entire fifth for confidence. The dashes become madder, the hand-offs quicker, and the stage becomes a whirling kaleidoscope. Sometimes the exchanges happen so fast they’re all but invisible. Here comes the axe, no there. Nope.
While we hear voices and shouts from the “theater,” no one speaks backstage. Their nonverbal antics turn the scene into a bizarre silent movie on warp drive.
In a play about actors behind the scenes, one can only imagine what Lamb’s rehearsals were like for act two. How to put the pieces together? The cast must run at top speed throughout. Did they rehearse bits in slow motion? How many repetitions before exhaustion set in? Danger zone: did they work with props from the start? With the real ones? Bottles break. Heavy fire axes break bones.
In effect, act two becomes a relay race. At stake is not who finishes, but who slams into someone or who drops the prop. When I saw the show, amid the pratfalls and bedlam, no one did.
In act three, the show’s become so askew, the barrier between the on-stage performances — now at the end of a dreadful 10 week run — and backstage breaks down. The cast began with an under-rehearsed new play and end up with each improvising their own play on the spot.
Lamb’s has a well-earned reputation for ensemble work. Their Noises Off is a fine example of each part sharing the stage and contributing to the whole. Deborah Gilmour’s effort stands out as foremost among equals. She plays Dottie, an aging TV personality assaulted by frustration. The savvy trooper in her fights to maintain the theatrical illusion. She eventually breaks down, but not before giving birth to sardines.