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NOISES OFF

by  Michael Frayn

H.A.T.S Theatre Group


I always look forward to your productions, not just because you are such a welcoming, friendly, heart warming group of thespians et al, but also because you never disappoint with your choice of plays, which in my experience, has always been courageous, brave, challenging and stimulating for your actors, and satisfying, interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining for your audiences.  You also carry the weight of not playing in your own theatre, which during the daytime is a school hall, which therefore poses problems which have to be overcome and says much for your company’s organisational, storage, scenery and rehearsal solutions, and which speak well for the atmosphere one walks into and is surrounded by during one’s visit – of being at home in a friend’s home.

Your choice of play this time is all of those thing’s previously mentioned, and then some, and is surely one of the funniest and fiendishly difficult farces ever written and performed.  Apart from individual comic ability in the actor’s personalized interpretations of their characters, and a sense of timing, a big essential factor is team work.  There are no individual stars in plays such as this one.  We all have to play as a team, and we have to feed each other, play off, with and for each other and be sensitive to and aware of all that is happening, rehearsed or instantaneous.  Facial expression is very important – blank faces rarely permitted.  I didn’t see one all night.  Playing farce is a  skill, not a gift – timing is a gift – and reaction is another important word.  However, experience does help when playing farce.  Behind each successful production like this one there has to be an all-seeing eye and yours was Chrissie Clayson.  A good director, as well as knowing the play and all its strengths and pitfalls, introduces ideas; is constantly available for advice and help, believes in their cast; is supporting and reassuring when necessary; and allows actors to express individual ideas and be original when in keeping with all that’s going on.  All these factors were on show in this production and rehearsals must have been fun as well, under your mastermind, Chrissie.  A far from easy play to put together, but Chrissie and her cast made it real life, for an audience who vastly enjoyed watching these unfortunate people ingeniously dealing with their problems

Without giving too much away, the following brief descriptions may be interesting for readers who have not yet seen the play, but have not given up hope of seeing it in the future.  If I had anything to do with it, I would make it compulsory for everyone in Great Britain to see it at least once – it would be therapeutic – and for every amateur theatre company in the country to include it in their repertoire sometime.  It would provide their actors and back stage staff with a joyous learning experience they would never forget .

It concerns an Otstar Productions Ltd tour of a play called “Nothing On” by Robin Housemonger.  The action of the play takes place in the living-room of a country house.  Act One shows us what happens at dress rehearsal; Act Two shows us what happens back-stage while the play is actually taking place; while Act Three is the  last night of the final performance on the tour somewhere else.  Therefore, for Act Two the whole set has to be turned, including the doors of the room’s upstairs, while we watch the backstage shenanigans, before being returned back again for the last act.  You now realise my previous use of the word “difficult”.

The set was an ingenious, well thought out one – it had to be.  Across the back was a flat comprising three doors to three separate rooms and SL and SR were two sets of steps up to an upper storey .  On this balcony was a similar set of three doors to three more rooms including bedroom, bathroom etc.  There was a way off SL and a further way off SR, through a black curtain.  These eight entrances/ exits were used continuously, as were the stairs to the balcony.  Down L was a free standing unit with double windows, through which entrances were made from time to time by the actor playing a burglar.  Again ingenuity had been used because the windows were diamond leaded, so the burglar used a hammer to break the bits of glass that was in some of them when breaking in, leaving the ASM in the play to sweep them up immediately.  Necessary furniture, table, couch, trolley etc completed the set, which were a triumph of creation and organisation when one considers the incredible use everything was continuously put to.  How the cast remembered the order of everything they had to do, at speed, particularly in Act two is known ultimately only to themselves and their director but bewildering it was and consequently hilarious.

In Act One, the night before the first performance, the cast is hopelessly unready.  Confused by entrances and exits, missed cues, missed lines, props and plates of sardines, they drive their director Lloyd into paroxysms of rage.  By Act Two, which is a month later on tour, and seen from back stage, performances have improved somewhat, but is now beset by deteriorating relations among cast, romantic rivalries, lovers tiffs and extremely angry personal quarrels.

In Act Three, relationships are worse, there are problems with the set (some doors can’t be opened), props are in the wrong hands, contact lenses are lost and actors efforts to cover up only serve to make thing’s worse.  This is only part of what our actors have on their plates, apart from the sardines, so reaching the end of an incredible story relatively safe and virtually uninjured wins them and all the others involved in whatever way, our congratulations.

Anita Partridge played Dolly Otley, the housekeeper left in charge of the house, while its owners have gone to Spain, and is totally confused trying to make sense of the people who keep arriving unexpectedly, when she thought she was going to have time to herself.  Jonathan Coupe was Lloyd Dallas, the unfortunate director driven to distraction by his cast, at first only heard from the rear of the audience until fate involves him in full view.  Colin Baker and Debbie Dickerson play lovers Garry Lejeune and Brooke Ashton, using the opportunity of the empty house, so they think, to indulge their romance only to be caught up in the most frenetic scenarios.  Chris Silke, as Frederick Fellowes, and Barbara Williamson as Brenda Blair, the house owners, return unannounced from Spain, further confusing things forcing her to try to restore some sort of order, while ministering to his perpetual nose bleeds.  Roger Clayson plays “reformed” burglar Selsdon Mowbray, or has he? And Adam Wright as Ted Allgood and Lara Daintree as Poppy Norton-Taylor, the Manager and Assistant, are left to set up, clear up, sort out, cover up, make right, change, correct and pretend everything is running well and true to the book.

To-night we were in the hands of nine actors who gave us an evening of sheer pleasure.  It was essentially a team playing for all they were worth, bringing all their skill and talents to bear.  Chrissie had chosen her cast so well and so suitably that I had no difficulty whatsoever in eventually believing that I wasn’t watching a play, I was actually in the house with these unfortunate people.  Not only that but I had actually seen a future Gold Medallist in “Falling Down Flights of Stairs Safely”. 

Well done to all involved in any way in a quite memorable production.

Thank you for your warm welcome and kind hospitality.

Happy playmaking