Sam Strong directs Michael Frayn's peerless farce for Melbourne Theatre Company
Melbourne audiences have had plenty of opportunities to familiarise themselves with the mechanics of farce this year. Declan Greene’s The Homosexuals, or Faggots premiered at Malthouse Theatre, and the touring production of The Play That Goes Wrong had a season at the Comedy Theatre. Now we get the daddy of all farce, with Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. It’s the kind of play that doesn’t really get revivals because it never really closes; there’s almost always a production of it playing somewhere around the world.
It’s not hard to see why; it is a textbook example of the form, and it provides a wealth of opportunity for gifted stage comedians. The play’s structure is also its meaning. The first act takes place during the dress rehearsal for a touring production of a grubby little bedroom farce called Nothing On. The second act takes place backstage, well into the tour when personal rivalries and sexual relationships have started to seriously sour. The final act takes place as the tour comes to its hobbled, halting end and everyone is ready to kill each other. It’s basically a metaphor for life.
The director, Lloyd (Simon Burke) is initially a disembodied voice from the gods, but lead actress Dotty (Louise Siversen) gets so confused about which props she is supposed to be taking on and off that he comes down to the stage to take control. But control is a fragile concept in the theatre, especially when Lloyd’s previous fling, assistant stage manager Poppy (Emily Goddard), discovers his new fling is the scantily-clad actress Brooke (Libby Munro). Throw in the arrogant Garry (Ray Chong Nee), the dim-witted Freddie (Hugh Parker), the svelte siren Belinda (Nicki Wendt) and the deaf and alcoholic Selsdon (Steven Tandy) – not to mention a permanently-stressed stagehand named Tim (James Saunders) – and you have a recipe for coordinated chaos.
As immutable as the play’s reputation is, the seams are beginning to show: there are tired and repetitive gags about sardines, questionable racial stereotypes involving ‘Arab Sheiks’, and a running time that is simply unjustifiable. Farce is by nature quick, and at over two hours this is half an hour too long.
Unfortunately, director Sam Strong exacerbates this impression with a lumbering and unimaginative production. His cast are exemplary, each one contributing moments of hilarity and idiosyncrasy, but too often the physical action is shaggy and the emotional connections merely schematic. Whereas farce relies on escalation, Strong seems content with iteration; he has an elaborate joke about actors crossing the sight lines that simply repeats ad nauseam. The effect on the joke is predictable. The effect on the play is dire.
Technically the production is a bit of a bore. Richard Roberts’ set and costume design are uncharacteristically mundane and forgettable. Russell Goldsmith’s sound design pulls on generic music hall ditties, but then lurches into ’80s indie pop, like a typical day in a Coles supermarket. Ben Hughes’s lighting attempts to inject some vigour, but when a standard scene change elicits applause over the virtuosic physicality of the actors, it’s clear something is seriously wrong.
There is something inherently depressing about an underperforming farce; it’s a little like a haiku with an incorrect number of syllables, where slight failure is precisely analogous to utter failure. This cast throw everything they have into the production, hurling themselves about the stage, holding up props like they’re symbols in a Dali painting, but it all comes to naught when the going is slow and the laughs begin to wither.
If The Homosexuals, or Faggots constituted the nadir of farce on Melbourne’s stages this year, and The Play That Goes Wrong constituted the zenith, then Noises Off has to be seen as the middling second cousin. It’s a definite step down for what used to be considered the daddy of the genre.