**** (out of 5)
There are many very good farces but few can be rated as great examples of the genre. Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off should make the top 10 in any listing of farces. It is a finely structured and intelligent play that starts funny and builds to absolute hilarity, if there is such an apogee of laughter.
That is all well between the covers of a book but it puts extraordinary and frequently unachievable demands on any theatre company that dares produce it. Soulpepper has not shied away from tackling the play which, according to a note in the programme, has never been produced by a professional Toronto company. The Stratford Festival did produce it in 2004 but that was a long time ago.
Brenda Robins, Matthew Edison, Raquel Duffy, Christopher Morris. Photo: Bronwen Sharp
Noises Off is a multi-layered play that requires physical and mental agility at break-neck speed. The plot? Well, a second-rate theatre company is putting on a play called Nothing On in a provincial town in England. The play is about a tax-evading English couple, Philip and Flavia Brent who live in Spain but return surreptitiously to their country home in England and must not be detected by the taxman.
They have a classic maid called Mrs. Clackett. A real estate agent named Roger brings a nubile woman named Vicki to the house for a tryst. But the Brents, Mrs. Clackett and a Burglar soon join them to create pandemonium.
That is the plot of Nothing On, the play within the play which is directed by Lloyd Dallas with backstage help from Poppy and Tim.
In Nothing On, Mrs. Clackett is played by Dotty Otley and In Noises Off Dotty (and Mrs. Clackett, of course) is played by Brenda Robins. The characters in Nothing On are played by actors of the company producing that play who in turn are played by actors in Noises Off. Got that?
The first act takes place on the set of Nothing On during the dress rehearsal. The actors are simply, hopelessly incompetent, drunk, missing, not-quite-there mentally and the result is laughter. The latter characteristics of the “actors” in Noises On are in reverse proportion to the talents of the actors of Soulpepper who play the actors who play the actors in the play and the play within-the-play, Confusing? Don’t worry about. It is quite clear in the theatre.
Matthew Edison, Myrthyn Stagg. Photo by Bronwen Sharp
The second act takes place backstage during a performance of Nothing On and the problems of the actors’ incompetence is intensified by “real-life” jealousies and personal rivalries and differences. The laughter intensifies in direct proportion to the increased complications of the plot.
In the third act we are watching a performance of Nothing On some weeks later and everything goes to hell in a hand basket as the play moves to yet another level of confusion. The actors’ rivalries come out in the open as they sabotage each other’s lines, entrances are screwed up and if the words havoc and pandemonium have any meaning, it is illustrated on stage at fever pitch.
Ted Dykstra was quite brave to accept directorial responsibility for the production. Frayn makes sure that you will get lots of laughs; the Soulpepper cast will do at the very least a fine job for you. But will they be able to reach that theatrical pinnacle of ensemble acting that produces the magical connection between stage and audience to have us rolling in the aisles with laughter? Almost.
Brenda Robins as Dotty the awful actress who plays Mrs. Clackett the mouthy maid carries the roles with aplomb. Matthew Edison as the Roger who plays the real estate agent and would-be-seducer of the luscious blonde Brooke has a great deal of running to do and some serious pratfalls to perform and does a fine job at it.
Myrthin Stagg as Vicki as Brooke Ashton, the actor who plays Vicki is the classic sexy, dim babe of farce wearing only undergarments who in real life would have married Donald Trump.
Oliver Dennis plays the Burglar who does not have much to do in that part but as the drunk actor who plays the Burglar he muffs his lines and his entrances and goes AWOL at the most inopportune times and he is simply hilarious.
Raquel Duffy is exceptional as the actress Belinda who plays Mrs. Brent. She is noticeable for her superb acting as a fine actress and decent human being who holds or tries to hold the inept clowns of Nothing On together. A delight to watch.
There is only praise for the performances of David Storch as the Director whose nerves are not so much frayed as microwaved and gone over with a lawnmower or the almost equally put upon Tim of Anand Rajaram and Oyin Oladejo as Poppy. Christopher Morris plays Frederick Fellowes (who plays Philip Brent) a man who is near the end of his rope and who gets a bleeding nose when under pressure.
Total result: laughter.
Noises off by Michael Frayn runs until October 22, 2016 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca