Noises Off at Pitlochry Festival Theatre – review
Performances of Michael Frayn's beloved comedy continue until 1 October
Noises Off is exactly 40 years old this year, but Michael Frayn's ridiculous farce-within-a-farce still has the power to make an auditorium lose itself in laughter. At least, it does if this anniversary production in the Pitlochry Festival Theatre is anything to go by.
The best craftsmen create art that conceals, and Frayn does that brilliantly. His basic idea is simple, taking a tawdry troupe of actors touring a farce called Nothing On, and treating the play's first act three different ways. We begin by seeing them rehearse, remarkably unsuccessfully, hectored by their harassed director who despairs of them being ready to open the next day. In the second act we see backstage of the same play while the actors fall out violently behind the scenes, and in the third act we're back front of house as things fall apart on the play's final night.
But if that's simple material for a comedy then the way Frayn writes it is dashed clever. The three acts fit together like the interlocking pieces of a puzzle, and part of the payoff for the audience is noticing how things work or don't between each scene. So much went on during the backstage antics of act two that I scarcely knew where to look: this is the kind of production in which you'd see new things if you saw it several times.
Frayn delights in sending up the crew of luvvie actors, with their endless cries of "Darling!" and "My love!", and each diva or attention-hogger feels like they're drawn from real life. Brilliantly, though, he also enjoys mocking the audience: anyone who has ever been to the theatre will enjoy what they do with the front-of-house calls, and the Saturday afternoon Pitlochry crowd particularly enjoyed act two's line "This is a matinee: there are old age pensioners out there!"
Liz Cooke's designs pay tribute to the play's 1982 origins by giving the stage set a garish 1970s feel, with its orange walls and minimalist sofa, while the men strut around in tweed flares and use comically outdated terms like "sex maniac". The staging is simple to look at, but that means that when we see backstage in act two, there's a pleasing sense of being let in on the magic of the multiple entrances and exits.
Ben Occhipinti directs the characters with pleasing focus, and he's helped by a terrific ensemble cast. Maybe Keith Jack's Freddy bumbles a little too much in a way that doesn't always seem intentional, but everybody else is flawless. Connor Going's Gary is a highlight: in act one, he's one of those irritating thesps who never finishes a sentence, but there's an edge to all he does and his physical comedy in act two is terrific. Marc Small's clipped gestures and staccato delivery underlines the frustration of Lloyd, the director, and he's mirrored by Richard Colvin's sympathetic but put-upon technician, Tim. Rachael McAllister plays the scatterbrained Brooke beautifully, and Deirdre Davis and Alyson Orr bring acres of experience to the parts of the older actresses who should know better. Keith Macpherson's Selsdon and Meg Chaplin's Poppy do a lot with little material.
Backstage in act two is the highlight of both the comedy and the dramatic tension. Returning to "up front" in act three feels like a bit of an anticlimax after that, and Frayn doesn't quite seem to know how to bring things to a satisfying ending: the action seems to halt rather than resolve. That's only a part of the mix, though. Overall the show is enormous fun. A smile scarcely left my face throughout.