One might not go to a production of the evergreen farce Noises Off looking for topicality. However, some of the biggest laughs at the press night of Nottingham Playhouse’s brilliant new production were elicited by the bumbling tax exile Philip Brent (played by Frederick Fellowes, played by Nottingham’s regular pantomime dame John Elkington) reacting to the Inland Revenue finally catching up with him. Watching a member of the 1% stumbling around with his pants round his ankles, glued to a plate of sardines and with poison burning at his crotch certainly seems to appeal to something in the present mood.
Blanche McIntyre’s Nottingham Playhouse debut of an expertly choreographed production makes excellent use of Robert Innes Hopkins’s labyrinthine set to put Fellowes and his colleagues through the physical wringer. Particularly in the stand-out second act, as the actors desperately run up and down rickety backstage staircases, dive headlong for doorways and throw props across improbable distances, the interaction between bodies, space and objects is almost flawless. The cast work brilliantly as an ensemble in portraying a cast who themselves work brilliantly as an ensemble even when at one another’s throats; when jealous lover Garry (Patrick Osborne) briefly turns homicidal and tries to take an axe to the hapless Frederick, the dexterity of the remainder of the cast in simultaneously defusing that situation and also picking up their cues is breath-taking.
The first act aligns the audience with laconic young director Lloyd (Orlando Wells), who stands in the auditorium’s aisle and sighs loudly at the company’s ramshackle dress rehearsal. The arrogance of an up-and-coming director, eager to get onto his Richard III, leads to him patronising the older members of the cast increasingly aggressively, while exploding at the younger women who he is sleeping with, and as Lloyd passes from the auditorium up onto the stage, he shifts from sharing a despairing gaze with the audience to being the object of that gaze.
His actors, meanwhile, are perfectly delineated. Carla Mendonça’s Dotty is hunched and doddery when acting as the maid, steely but bewildered when herself, and it is her utter abandonment of plot in search of some coherence about the sardines that triggers the carnage of Act Three. Garry’s inability to get out a full sentence despite his preening over-confidence that entitles him to speak on behalf of others befuddles the older Frederick and Selsdon (Robin Bowerman), whose single-minded pursuit of a bottle of whisky becomes one of the best running sight gags. Becci Gemmell provides the calm centre as the relatively sane Belinda, but her continued rallying of the ‘loves’ and ‘darlings’ becomes almost tragic in its optimistic insistence that ensemble spirit will win out.
Where the first act sets up the characters, the choreography and the expectations for what should happen, the play comes into its own with the near-silent action of the second act. It is here that the love triangle comes to the fore. Sophia Nomvete is a surprisingly formidable Brooke, and the succession of flowers that Lloyd tries to present to her backstage seems to be as much about self-preservation as about wooing her. Brooke’s building rage at her treatment by her lover is matched only by the axe-wielding mania of Garry, and the physical dexterity reaches its peak as a chain of ensemble members manages to finally wrest the axe from him. The production’s heart, by contrast, is the quiet ASM Poppy (Ritu Arya), whose weeping backstage calls and quiet interventions to keep the play on track are barely noticed by most of the ensemble, even as she swallows the secret of her pregnancy by Lloyd.
In fact, the ease with which both Poppy and the long-suffering, sleep-deprived SM/understudy/dogsbody Tim (Brian Lonsdale) are ignored or taken for granted by the rest of the company does a great deal to undermine the language of love and camaraderie which the actors use to pretend they are all in it together. Even within the context of a farce, the sensitive performances of Arya and Lonsdale make visible the emotional labour and selfless support needed to keep the show going. By the time Poppy is reduced to screaming at her unfaithful lover and Tim has abandoned himself to understudying an actor who is on stage with him simultaneously, one realises that there is no-one left to hold things together.
The third act loses a certain amount of energy, perhaps inevitably as the performed performers metaphorically and literally lose the plot. The deliberately uncertain transition between Acts 2 and 3, with the curtain refusing to open, whisky bottles appearing on stage and Poppy and Tim vying with one another over apology announcements, seemed to be genuinely disruptive for an audience unsure of whether the (real) play was over or not. But this expertly played descent into chaos was both a display of technical virtuosity and a dizzying, hilarious evening.
Noises Off is on until 30th April 2016 at Nottingham Playhouse. Click here for tickets.