By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
As Julie Andrews famously said in The Sound of Music, when one door closes another opens.
She was not in fact talking about farces at the time. But she might have been. The oil business rolls in barrels. The news business is calibrated in clicks, real estate in square footage. The farce industry is measured, internationally, in doors. The deluxe example that’s currently running at the Mayfield (directed by Neptune Theatre artistic director Jeremy Webb) has seven, plus one French patio window. In Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off, the spiralling quantity of manic complication that is unleashed on either side and through them is unsurpassed in modern theatre.
Not least this is because Noises Off isn’t just one British sex farce. For the price of a ticket, you get two, one within the other, intersecting disastrously in the course of a backwater tour.
Built into the lunacy of every farce is the dark insight that every theatre company in the world knows in its bones: organization and planning and good order in our lives are in the end an illusion. Cosmic chaos, my friends, is just a misstep, a miscue, a misplaced prop, or a slammed door away. And Noises Off is a graphic demo of the fun of panic (other people’s) and our collective flirtation with the near-miss. The first time I saw Noises Off, in the ‘80s at the Savoy Theatre in London — in the aerie reaches of the balcony, of course — one elderly gentleman in our midst laughed so hard he hyper-ventilated and fell out of his seat, and had to be carried out by ushers. I’m slightly abashed to report that this seemed perfectly natural, and in no way detracted from anyone’s enjoyment. Au contraire.
But I digress. In Act I we see a cast of B-team Brit actors, some well past their best-before date, and the increasingly harried director in the final technical rehearsal of a relentlessly crappy trouser-dropping door slammer called Nothing On, about to tour hick towns.
The plot, to speak magnanimously of something as skimpy as the ingenue’s underwear, has to do with plates of sardines, a box of tax files, illicit afternoon nookie in a country house that’s supposedly empty, that sort of thing, with a lot of doubling entendres. And the rehearsal, led by the ever-more-exasperated director Lloyd (Cameron MacDuffee), a disembodied voice in the dark, is grinding on, in screwed-up entrances, sardines, overnight bags. “How about the words, love? Am I getting some of them right?” asks Dotty (Mary-Colin Chisholm), a faded TV comic making her comeback as the addled housekeeper Mrs. Clackett. “Some of them have a very familiar ring,” is the terse reply.
In Act 2, a month into the tour, we get the backstage view at a disintegrating Wednesday matinee. John Dinning’s perfectly theatrically tacky two-storey fake-16th century country house set — an amazing fit for the Mayfield stage — is made to revolve. And the actors and stage management are enmeshed in a fracturing real-life sex farce of their own that hilariously seems to parallel the “farcical” one. Every exit is an entrance onto the stage, and vice versa. It’s a sustained and delirious, mostly silent, comedy of choreographed pratfalls, as bouquets of flowers, bottles of booze, boxes, bits of costumes, and a fire axe get tossed from person to person.
By Act 3, we’re in front again, at the final performance of the tour, a conflagration of sabotaged props and costumes, improvised lines, festering on- and offstage jealousies.
Webb’s ensemble of actors, assembled from across the country, play an assortment of recognizable Brit theatre actor types playing badly written sex farce characters. The effect is sometimes smudged by a certain lack of distinction (or at least shading) in performances between, say, Dotty the has-been diva and Mrs. Clackett, the dithery housekeeper whose efforts to enjoy a plate of sardines and watch telly are doomed to ever-more spectacular failure. I must add, however, that Mrs. Clackett’s Act 3 disintegration into muttering wreckage is very funny.
Christian Murray is droll as Nothing On’s slick take-charge real-estate guy Garry whose amorous advances are repeatedly thwarted, as played by an actor (you know the type) who is congenitally unable to finish a sentence to explain his objections to this or that directive from Lloyd.
As Vicki, a statuesque blonde dimbulb who either cavorts around the stage in her knickers as the hair-tosser Brooke, or stops proceedings regularly to look for a missing contact lens, Kelly Holiff forges a grandly fake cadence that lingers on every consonant. She makes every utterance (“that’s not the bedroommmmm; it’s another bathroommmm”) solemn. Amusingly, when the show is reduced to rubble in Act 3, it’s Vicki who remembers all her inane lines and grimly carries on.
Garett Ross is particularly funny as an oversensitive leading man who can’t so much as move a box without knowing his motivation. Patricia Zentilli plays the unctuous cast gossip whose sympathetic revelations are all about spreading the dirt — who plays Freddie’s ever-smiling conciliatory wife in Nothing On.
MacDuffee’s performance doesn’t take advance of the obvious comic possibilities in creating a pompous noblesse-oblige Brit director, the kind who’s also staging Richard III at the Aberystwyth Festival. His Lloyd is rather more generic than that, and seems to panic a little too easily. But acid, and exasperation, do escalate. Ben Francis and Gianna Vacirca are the overworked backstage team (and occasional understudies). Their endless duties include keeping an eye on the the old souse (Tom Edwards) who plays the burglar, and never gets an entrance right.
Noises Off is a sublime reminder that playing bad and mistiming comedy are just as tricky as getting it right. This production isn’t the last word in that kind of finesse. But you’ll laugh, long and out loud. And that’s a noise that’s a rare and precious sensation.
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre
Written by: Michael Frayn
Directed by: Jeremy Webb
Starring: Mary-Colin Chisholm, Tom Edwards, Ben Francis, Kelly Holiff, Cameron MacDuffee, Christian Murray, Garett Ross, Gianna Vacirca, Patricia Zentilli
Running: through March 29
Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca