Noises Off: Right On

 

The Arts Club is producing David Frayn's Noises Off at the Stanley Theatre.

Actors appalled by escalating calamity. (Photo of Emma Slipp, Jovanni Sy, Tess Degenstein, Colleen Winton, and Charlie Gallant by David Cooper)

There’s something sublime about farce when it’s well done and this Arts Club production of Noises Off is very well done.

In Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce, a hapless company of English actors rehearses and then performs … a farce.

In Nothing On, the play-within-the-play, a set of characters converges on a country house, not expecting the others to be there. The owners are expats who are supposed to be living in Spain and can’t let the tax service know they’re back in England. The real-estate agent who’s supposed to be renting the place out shows up for a tryst with a gorgeous woman — who works for the tax department — and so on. There’s a lot of complicated physical business involving newspapers, plates of sardines, and the requisite well-timed exits and entrances through multiple slamming doors.

But this supposedly well-oiled machine is so slippery that it goes off the rails. Dotty Otley, who’s playing the housekeeper, can’t remember where the sardines and newspapers are supposed to go or what the hell she’s supposed to do with the telephone. Dotty’s much younger boyfriend Garry Lejeune suspects that she’s sharing her affections with another actor, Frederick Fellowes, and can’t contain his rage.

Watching actors negotiate this unbelievably complicated mess — often at a breakneck pace — is the theatrical equivalent of watching trapeze artists at high speed and it’s exhilarating.

A lot of the joy springs from absurdity and nobody in this cast is better at that than Tess Degenstein, who’s playing Brooke Ashton. Brooke is a bimbo who’s playing a bimbo, the hot-to-trot tax auditor. Degenstein commits to her character’s irrationality. During rehearsal, her Brooke is kind of like a robot that’s only activated when she’s getting attention. And, in the third act, when a performance of Nothing On is falling apart and the other actors are trying to improvise their way through it, Brooke sticks mercilessly to her lines, even though they no longer make sense. Degenstein pulls it off with hilariously vacant determination.

And Charlie Gallant embodies another aspect of the beauty of farce: physical precision. Playing the young actor Garry Lejeune, Gallant is downright athletic, even balletic. Just wait till you see him fall down stairs.

There’s more. I love Emma Slipp’s turn as the classically effusive, gossipy, deeply throaty English actress Belinda Blair. Colleen Winton does a killer deadpan as Dotty Otley. Playing stage manager Tim Allgood Nora McLellan mines the power of big, well-chosen responses. And the role of Lloyd Dallas, the director, was custom-made for Andrew McNee, who’s one of the funniest guys in town. Fortunately, Dallas also gets some of the best lines in the script, including this slow burn to an actor: “All my studies in English literature are at your disposal.”

Frayn’s script, which is written in three acts but plays with a single intermission, isn’t perfect. The second act, which plays out backstage, relies on a lot of goofy mime and features the unfunny running gag of trying to hide a bottle from an alcoholic older actor.

Still, the evening is a frolic, largely because director Scott Bellis has cast so well and because he has kept such a sure hand on the pace and changes of focus. Speaking of the latter, Brooke keeps losing a contact. The whiplash effect of that on the entire cast is as good as any rollercoaster.

It’s good to laugh together. Go see Noises Off.

NOISES OFF By Michael Frayn. Directed by Scott Bellis. An Arts Club Theatre production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, January 29.  Continues until February 23. Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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