Michael Frayn’s 1982 play shows us a performance of a farce from behind the scenes, each of the three acts consisting of an attempt to perform the first act of Nothing On, a farce of debatable quality.
We’re first shown the technical rehearsal, then backstage at a matinÃ©e performance, and then at a show towards the end of the ten week run. As tensions fray among the cast and crew, we observe the disconnect between the farce world, where women are silly seductresses and gentry can coincidentally resemble Arab sheiks, and the real world, where said women are prone to losing contact lenses in their own eyes, and earnest questions about motivation are asked by performers painfully unaware of the mechanics of farce.
This production, even at the rehearsal stage, is an absolute treat, the cast putting in hilarious and well-judged performances, demonstrating that they are clearly attuned to playing their characters in and out of theirs on stage. Jackson informs me that she gave her cast an extra edge in this regard by doing several rehearsals of solid improvisation as their characters rehearsing the fictional script for Nothing On, with Tom Dowling as Lloyd Dallas directing and Misha Pinningtion as Poppy Norton-Taylor stagemanaging.
It’s this attention to detail that makes this production shine — likewise the dedication of the cast, some of whom had to rush off at the end of rehearsals to perform in West Side Story and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men later that very evening.
When Cherwell TV spirits away some of the cast for interviews, a dispute breaks out amongst the remaining cast and crew over who is the most charismatic, and it’s not immediately clear whether they’re practicing lines or not. Chatting to Aoife Cantrill and Tom Lambert, I ask if they’ve noticed any similarities between themselves and their characters. They tell me yes, andÂ that these have only been growing throughout the rehearsal process. “I’ve certainly got stupider,” Cantrill confides.
The cast have an obvious rapport, this sense of camaraderie evident when after rehearsals they take to running around under a bedsheet, making for some of the most bizarre interviews I’ve ever conducted. Apparently, there also are plans to have a five-a-side football match with the cast of West Side Story, the coverage of which they offer as a Cherwell exclusive (so Sport, if you’re out there…) and I assure them the result of this match will decide who gets the better review.
Unfortunately, I’m only permitted to see the first act of the play, but apparently the piece gets even better as it progresses, where, as Benedict Morrison (Selsdon Mowbray) excitedly notes, “The extent of the collapse in meaning becomes more riotous.”
At the Playhouse, the show will feature a revolving set to showcase both the onstage and backstage action, but the cast will only get their set a few days before the performance, as well as having to contend with the logistical issues of numerous plates of sardines, as well as the improbable number of doors mandated by the farce format.
Real and actual mistakes blur in the rehearsal I watched, with both a director and a “director” offering corrections, but rest assured I am in no doubt that on opening night, the only mistakes will be intentional ones.
Wonderfully witty, with beautifully metatheatrical flourishes, Noises Off looks set to be the perfect tonic for your 5th Week blues.
The show is running at the Oxford Playhouse from Wednesday 18th of February until Saturday 21st.