Review | Noises Off: a fine British farce

Angela Timberman in NOISES OFF. Photo by Devon Cox.

Noises Off is a perennially popular farce about all the things that can go wrong with a theatre production. Anyone who knows theatre knows the list is almost endless: last minute changes that rattle the actors, backstage romances that threaten onstage relationships, faulty set construction, frenzied directors, missing props, and actors who must have proper (if imaginary) motivation before they can even carry a box off stage, etc. etc. etc. But you don’t have to be a theatre person to enjoy the antics that British playwright Michael Frayn’s Noises Off has to offer.

As written, Noises Off, which just opened at Artistry in Bloomington, packs in its action at a spritely pace. It boasts well-crafted gags placed in a play-within-a-play format. Most of the cast must play two characters: the stage character of the play they are attempting to mount called “Nothing On” and the backstage person who is playing that role. The Artistry production leads off with Angela Timberman as the actress, Dotty Otlie–playing the maid, Mrs. Clackett–with a plate of sardines and few of her lines memorized.

In this production, each character distinctly stands out, from the slovenly Clackett to the old codger Selsdon Mowbray (well done by Fred Mackaman) who thinks having another swig of scotch is more important than entering on cue. Physically, everyone is perfectly suited to their roles in this well-cast production. When someone makes a quip about Mowbray looking like Hamlet’s ghost he couldn’t look more suited for that part. Neal Skoy (a former clown with Ringling Bros.) is equally entertaining to watch in the character of Tim Allgood, set builder and gopher for “Nothing On” as he lopes around with his tool belt strapped around an understudy’s costume. The wide-eyed Poppy Norton-Taylor is perfectly underplayed by Jamie Case.

To make any farce work, timing is important. This production has the timing down to a tick as director, Benjamin McGovern, keeps the Artistry production skipping along. The second act begins with the set revolved 180 degrees to reveal the backstage carryings-on of the desperate cast trying to make a go of their under-rehearsed play. The audience knows what is supposed to happen and it sees how terribly wrong things are going. Everything from sardines to shoelaces to Mowbray’s bottle of scotch gets in the way. If the second act has any fault it’s that some of the backstage characters could have been more distinctly drawn to separate them from their “Nothing On” roles. This is perhaps most true of Vicki (Emily Sue Bengtson) a scantily clad bimbo on stage and backstage, as Brooke Ashton, a meditating devotee. More could be made of that distinction in this production both in costume choices and characterization.

Americans have a different way of going at farce than the Brits. When an Englishman would underplay a part to show how he is attempting save face and rescue his respectability, the American actor often over does the drama, flagging his emotions to be sure the audience gets the joke. That is often true in this production. The beginning of the first act in particular could use a lighter touch. Allowing the character of the stage director (Riley McNutt) for example, time to stew in his very, very distraught but overtly calm way, before boiling over with shouted commands. This is no reason to stay away from Artistry’s dynamic production however. It’s a great deal of fun on either side of the Atlantic.

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