Milk and Two Sugars Productions delivers a Noises Off that is consistently funny from beginning to end, and it does so with a sure control of pacing, and a willingness to be as slapstick as possible without any self-conscious reserve. In addition, it is very clear from the near-perfect execution of the precise choreography that the performers have augmented their considerable physical talents with a devotion to detail in rehearsals. We see none of the sort of generalized flailing-about that often passes for physical comedy, as farce increasingly seems to be something of a lost art – but you wouldn’t know it from watching this production.
Michael Frayn’s meta-theatrical comedy is essentially the same scene enacted three times, but each from a different perspective. A group of thespians are attempting to rehearse and perform an absurd farce called ‘Nothing On’: in the first act, they’re stumbling through a dress rehearsal; in the second, they’re wreaking havoc offstage during a performance while trying to keep order onstage; in the third, the actors are so far gone that the chaos has finally erupted onstage, as the actors improvise lines with little success in a last ditch effort to salvage what they’ve got. Each reiteration involves the same scene from ‘Nothing On’, but the scene is played completely differently every time because of various accidents.
It is vital for any production of Noises Off that each repetition display a different quality in terms of pacing, energy, and physicality, and here director Helena Jackson shapes the play well. She allows Act One to be slow and leisurely, letting the audience settle into the world of the play and highlighting punchlines with well-timed pauses; choreographs Act Two in a way that gives the audience no respite, with constant frenetic motion; and gently slows the pace down again in Act Three, but bringing out much more frayed and broken-down performances from actors to contrast with Act One. The physical comedy that we see backstage is fantastically directed, with a particular highlight being the bit of stage business with an axe: as some actors take turns trying to kill each other while other actors try to intervene, the axe is passed deftly from person to person with the rhythmic clarity of a dance, which only serves to heighten the absurd hilarity of the action. The director and ensemble also make interesting choices in terms of how the actors as themselves correspond to the characters they’re playing. Almost every actor seem to share the same personality as the character they’re playing, using the same accents and even the same mannerisms: it is as if the performance is only an extension of who they really are.
In terms of performances, it is very hard to pick out highlights as every member of the ensemble cast serves their purpose as a part in a machine, and no one actor dominates. What the cast does do very well is to differentiate themselves from each other, giving each actor an instantly-recognizable persona. Many of the laughs depend on this consistency for long-term payoff. For example, Brooke, played by Aoife Cantrill, is a ditz who cares more about keeping her contact lenses on than interpreting her character with any kind of awareness or intelligence, and her biggest punch-lines don’t come into play until Act Three: despite the fact that everyone else are changing their lines on-the-spot to fit the changing circumstances on stage, she recites her lines word-for-word, blithely unaware that none of what she says makes sense. Here Aoife Cantrill could have fallen into the trap of telegraphing her character’s bewilderment, but she instead chooses to deliver all her lines with a straight face, which actually highlights her character’s stupidity. Belinda, played by Emily Honey, is the sensible peacekeeper, and she gets her turn in the aforementioned tussle with the axe as she bravely stands between actors maniacally swinging at each other; very often, it is her reaction rather than the action itself that sells the laugh.
The production crew has similarly differentiated personalities. Lloyd the Director, played by Tom Dowling, is written by Michael Frayn as a typical over-thinker who speaks about slapstick farce in existential terms, but Tom Dowling glides over that aspect of his character and instead chooses to interpret his role as an ineffectual taskmaster: he sprouts intellectual bullshit not as if he actually believes them, but simply as a way to keep the cast in control and fob off his incompetence. Kieran Ahern as Stage Manager Tim and Misha Pinnington as Stage Hand Poppy may not get as much stage time as the other characters, but they nevertheless make their presence felt whenever they do happen to be on stage, and their characters’ trajectory from sensible technicians who stand apart from the thespians’ madness to being fully embroiled in all the craziness by the end is an integral part of the overall humor of the play. I am aware that, by this point, I have only mentioned half of the actors – it’s a testament to the across-the-board consistency of the cast and the depth of talent that the actors not mentioned by name are not in any way inferior in their performances.
For, in the end, this is what the play is: an ensemble piece. And, like all good ensemble pieces, it depends on not having stand-out performances that attract undue attention. Similarly, the best farces depend much more on sustained situational comedy than isolated punch-lines. Ultimately, the best compliment to a production of Noises Off is that it is a triumph of teamwork – and this is certainly true for this production. There are no personalities here who ride on charisma – instead, we have a true collaboration centered on craft and attention to detail, with care paid to the gritty, ‘unsexy’ technique that is in fact the backbone of comedy. The laughs ring true – rather than hollow – because nobody attempts to take shortcuts. That’s why they’re funny. They’ve earned it.