Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Noises Off – Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch

Noises Off by Michael Frayn
Directed by Bob Carlton
Reviewed by Mark Valencia

Michael Frayn’s comedy of backstage horrors was once described as one of the 13 best farces written since the war, ‘the other twelve being Fawlty Towers’. That comparison was hard to deny in Michael Blakemore’s blissful premiere production with Patricia Routledge and Paul Eddington and, if anything, it was even truer in the razor-sharp revival that Jeremy Sams mounted for the National Theatre a few years back. I have even been reduced to hysterics by this play in a humble rep production before now; so what makes this Queen’s production fall so flat?

Bob Carlton’s production has plenty of zip, and it certainly looks great on Rodney Ford’s revolving set. This theatre has a good track record in modern comedy, most recently in a terrific staging of Ayckbourn’s How The Other Half Loves that featured many of the same actors, but for some reason their Noises Off fails to cross the footlights. And that ‘some reason’? There’s no getting away from it: too many roles are miscast and too many lines mistimed.

The resident company at the Queen’s, ‘cut to the chase…’, is a multi-talented group of actor-musicians who have done heroic work since last autumn across an eclectic range of shows. However, Noises Off is not a play whose parts can be distributed easily among a pre-existing company. Each role makes specific demands and requires dead-centre casting, while on a technical level the play is the very devil to prepare and perform. The tale of a down-at-heel touring company desperately trying to keep their wretched comedy afloat during a gruelling provincial tour, riven though they are by internal strife, is powered by an hilarious (but fiendishly tricky) central act in which a disastrous matinée performance is viewed from backstage. In fairness to the Queen’s, this virtuoso visual sequence is the production’s strongest suit and offers a tightly rehearsed half-hour of breakneck physical comedy.

For the rest, the strongest performances occur in the least prominent roles. Natasha Moore is a bikini-clad delight as the air-headed Brooke; Lucy Thackeray shines as the put-upon ASM, Poppy; and as Selsdon, the perpetual drunk, Stuart Organ is pitch perfect. All three are round pegs in round holes.

For the central roles we move on to pegs of a different shape. The careworn, lothario director is given a bruising interpretation by Shaun Hennessy that contradicts his character’s lofty pretensions. As the male lead in the play within a play, Rowan Talbot lacks the necessary twitchiness and opts instead for an angrily-actorly persona that’s at odds with his barely coherent outbursts. Kim Ismay misses the broken dignity of Dotty Otley, a once-cultured actress who has been reduced to playing chars and lollipop ladies, and the strong-voiced Simon Jessop is insufficiently vulnerable as the hyper-sensitive fall guy. Georgina Field, in her paired roles, oversells the comedy and leaves it for dead.

The audience applauded enthusiastically at the end, and you may be more swayed by their response than by mine. Certainly, anyone who has never seen Noises Off will find plenty to enjoy here, for the play survives more or less intact. But it could have been so much better.

Photos: Nobby Clark

Noises Off runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until Saturday 9th May
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