If The Bubble did star-ratings (which we don’t, sorry) — I’d give it SIX. Phoenix TC’s Noises Off (written by Michael Frayn) is a tour de force of slapstick and farce, done with skilful delivery and masterful comic timing. It’s been nine months in the making (and you can tell) — Ben Cawood’s production is The Play that Goes Wrong and Monty Python on steroids.
We begin our play at a late-night dress rehearsal of the play Nothing On. Unsurprisingly, it’s already going wrong — very wrong. Director Lloyd (Ben Lewis) watches the action from the auditorium as the actors perform (rather poorly) in front of him. The second act reverses the set, taking audiences backstage during a performance. Blending silent physical comedy with the on-stage production occurring in unison — audiences couldn’t help but marvel at the exact timing and polished delivery. What’s more, viewers even get to see the real-life production team, engaging with the “backstage actors” (it’s so meta; it’s enough to make your head explode). Finally, we are returned to the auditorium once more to watch the final performance of Nothing On. And it’s undoubtedly their worst one yet (if that’s at all possible).
Whether you’re a passive theatregoer or Meryl Streep herself, everyone knows it’s hard to play a terrible actor. An actor, playing an actor who is acting? — I’m already confused. This cast, however, certainly seem to have their heads around things. In fact, sometimes you even forget you’re watching a farce altogether. Every time a window smashes, a character goes through the wrong door, or someone falls over — I found myself actually sympathising for the “actors” (whilst also scream laughing from the back row).
The play opens with Maddie Clarke, who plays Dotty, playing Clackett (it sounds complicated, but it’s relatively simple, I promise). Clarke does a phenomenal job, blending seamlessly from the posh diction of Dotty, to the Cockney slang of Clackett. At times, she’s even reminiscent of Julie Walter’s performance as Mrs Overall — with her slow movements and childish grin, audiences couldn’t help but be in hysterics. Next we have Alex Edward’s Garry / Roger. Once again, he does a fantastic job of switching between the two roles skilfully. Towards the end of the play, the two characters unsurprisingly start seeping into one another — which Edwards conveys brilliantly (if not a little frighteningly).
Flo Lunnon’s Belinda is utterly charming. From the outset audiences recognise her as the jovial type, desperate for the performance to go right. As things start to go wrong, however, we start to see the facade slipping. And as it does, Lunnon hilariously changes facial expression as she desperately tries to keep in character, whilst also teetering on a breakdown. Her partner in crime, Freddie / Philip (Jo Price) is equally as endearing. Especially in act two, audiences really get to see Price’s range as an actor as he switches between his confident on-stage persona, and his timid backstage self.
I was particularly impressed by Emilia Lewis’ Brooke, and her vicarious relationship with stage-manager Poppy (Clara Dammann). Lewis is hilarious as a “terrible actor”, as she, essentially, shouts her dialogue in exactly the same tone for most of the play. She then switches effortlessly with her real-life persona, a gormless actress who, quite frankly, has no idea what she’s doing there. But as the play progresses, we start to see a different side to her, especially with her heated interactions with Polly. Clara Dammann does a tremendous job of reciprocating Lewis’ vehement gaze, whilst simultaneously revealing a deeply anxious stage manager, worn down with the stresses of theatre life. Especially in act 2 Dammann’s mood swings are so entertaining to watch — we couldn’t take our eyes off her.
Clearly fatigued with the responsibility of directing, Ben Lewis is a perfect director Lloyd. The difference between acts is so well-tracked — as audiences get to see him slowly lose the will to live. Henry Jones is equally compelling as sleep-deprived Tim, especially in the first act where his wearied facial expressions never fail to amuse. And last, but certainly not least, we have Olly Stanton’s Selsdon: the troupe’s seasoned alcoholic. A constant liability to the cast and crew, Stanton’s performance is so authentic, I often found myself feeling a great deal of concern for his chaotic tendencies.
But what really brings the piece together is the set (designed by Rosie Haffenden, Carrie Cheung, Katie Scott) — especially the ways in which the actors interact with the set, and use it to immerse audience members into the action. Using ‘onstage’ and ‘backstage’ set designs, audiences get to see both sides of this truly chaotic performance, and how the two seamlessly intertwine. The actors seemed very confident with the stage space, effortlessly tripping over phone cords, swinging doors, breaking windows, and (most significantly) throwing sardines at each other. It was a pleasure to watch.
I don’t usually consider myself a gusher — but it’s hard not to be after watching ‘Noises Off’. It was hilarious! In fact, it might just be the finest piece of student theatre that I’ve seen to date. Polished but chaotic, controlled and yet turbulent, Ben Cawood’s production is a triumph.
Featured image: Phoenix Theatre Company
‘Noises Off’ is running until 18th November, at the Mark Hillery Arts Centre.