Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
After the house lights came on at the end of Noises Off, which has just opened the Scarborough Players’ 60th season, my husband immediately remarked, “that was really good.” As we walked to the parking, he appreciatively pronounced the evening “an experience.” And so it was: a tightly-performed, high-octane comedy tour de force, in an intimate yet laid-back theatrical venue.
Noises Off is a farce by British playwright-novelist Michael Frayn. It premiered in London’s West End in 1982 to almost instant critical and audience acclaim and ultimately ran for 5 years. It opened on Broadway in 1983 and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. 9 years later, a film adaptation directed by Peter Bogdonavich was released. Since then, it has been revived twice in London (2000 and 2011), and twice on Broadway (2001 and 2015), and has earned several Tony Awards and nominations, including Best Revival of a Play both times. More broadly speaking, Noises Off has become a beloved and often-revived staple of professional and community theatre companies worldwide.
A backstage comedy or play-within-a-play, Noises Off centres on a ragtag group of actors readying a sex farce called “Nothing On”. Each of Noises Off ’s three acts contains a performance of the first act of “Nothing On”, a play that features slapstick, young women in undergarments, men dropping their pants, a whiplash-inducing number of entrances and exits, multiple errant plates of sardines, and even a sham sheikh. The first act features the technical rehearsal on the eve of opening night. It is midnight, and almost all of the actors remain unprepared, which frustrates and infuriates their condescending director Lloyd Dallas, played with an acerbic smugness by Rich Burdett. The second act is set during a matinée performance a month into the run. In this act, the action takes place “backstage”, so the audience is privy to hidden aspects of the performance, and witnesses open hostilities among the actors. Their personal rivalries and romantic quarrels wreak havoc and spill over into their performances on stage, which the audience can hear but not see.The third act is set during the final performance of “Nothing On”, by which time the relationships have deteriorated to such an extent that the only order at work is Murphy’s Law.
The delightful Malorie Mandolidis plays the appropriately named Dotty Otley, an investor in “Nothing On” and also a befuddled actress prone to confusing her lines and her props. Robert Frances lends an earnest charm to his role as actor Garry Lejeune, who plays the role of Roger Tramplemain in “Nothing On”. Tramplemain is the estate agent trying to rent Flavia and Philip Brent’s house while impressing his girlfriend Vicky. Melissa Williams plays Brooke Ashton, a nubile, aspiring young actress prone to extraordinary overacting. She plays Vicky in “Nothing On” with a doe-eyed ingenuousness and lots of physical exaggeration. Holm Bradwell maximizes his scope for physical comedy as Frederick “Freddy” Fellowes, an insecure actor who needs motivation for his role of Philip Brent, and whose sensitivity to violence brings on spontaneous nosebleeds. Belinda Blair is the most capable and confident actor of the cast, here played with an unbreakable cheerfulness by Christine Dick. Rounding out the ensemble are Daryn DeWalt as Selsdon Mowbray, an actor with a drinking problem who plays the burglar in “Nothing On. Dewalt’s understated portrayal delivers laughs without turning his character into a caricature. Finally, Greg Nowlan and Misha Harding are well paired in their respective roles as Tim Allgood, company stage manager and understudy to the roles played by Selsdon and Freddy; and Poppy Norton-Taylor, the overworked and frazzled assistant stage manager. Their nicely synched comic timing reaches an especially funny climax in Act Two.
Much of the play’s comedy derives from physical humour, extended gags and persistent clashes over dissenting opinions. The actors’ fragile egos and their onstage vs. offstage personalities provide ample comic fodder, as do their varying talent levels, which range from competent to utterly inept. While Noises Off remains an often-revived play, success in mounting it is by no means certain. The cohesion and coordination of the acting ensemble is critical. The reason that the Scarborough Players’ production works so well is that all of the actors are strong in their respective roles without ever outshining one another. Frankly, the pace of the first act made me wonder if they could pull off the frenetic energy and tandem precision required in the second act, which depends even more on timing and stamina. I need not have worried: I won’t give anything away, but the actors’ skill in maneuvering numerous props, delivering on-stage dialogue, performing backstage mime — all while keeping their onstage vs. offstage characters straight through dizzying states of motion, without falling (except on purpose . . . did I mention there’s a moving fire axe?) – is breathtaking. This is choreographed mayhem with the precision of a Swiss timepiece. Hats off to director Harvey Levkoe for hitting on an effective combination of emotional resonance and physical comedy from his actors. The results are truly hilarious.
A few other notes… The stage at Scarborough Village Theatre is a thrust stage with no curtain. This means that the set (compactly designed by Wayne Cardinalli) must literally be reversed by the actors not once, but twice, in full view of the audience. These changes from stage to backstage, and then backstage to stage, are notable mini-performances unto themselves! The actors have adopted English accents for this England-set play, which are sometimes inconsistent. This may straighten itself out as the run progresses, and is, in any case, a minor quibble in an otherwise memorable production.
My experience at Scarborough Village Theatre marked my introduction to Noises Off and to the Scarborough Players (both of which I knew of, but hadn’t yet experienced). Although my husband grew up in Scarborough, the venue was also a new discovery for him. Volunteers run all aspects of the organization, which makes it especially friendly. On the day we attended, many audience members recognized and interacted with each other, and all seemed ready for a fun time at the theatre – which they got. With affordable refreshments at intermission, wheelchair accessibility, ample free parking, and as of this season, hearing assistance technology, Scarborough Players has much to offer arts adorers who appreciate a high-quality uptown experience, without any downtown hassle. We were impressed with Noises Off, and look forward to more such experiences from this welcoming community theatre company.
News You Can Use
What: Noises Off by Michael Frayn; presented by Scarborough players; Directed by Harvey Levkoe
Featuring Holm Bradwell (Freddy), Rich Burdett (Lloyd), Daryn DeWalt (Selsdon), Christine Dick (Belinda), Robert Frances (Garry), Misha Harding (Poppy), Malorie Mandolidis (Dotty), Greg Nowlan (Tim), Melissa Williams (Brooke)
Who: Audiences 10 years of age and older
When: On stage until October 20; Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes (includes one 20-minute intermission)
Where: Scarborough Village Theatre, 3600 Kingston Rd (at Markham Rd), Scarborough, ON
Tickets and Info: TheatreScarborough.com
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine