For anyone unfamiliar with its premise, Noises Off is an outrageously rollicking play-within-a-play that reveals the chaos and pitfalls that beset a second-rate theatre company when it rehearses and tours a silly sex comedy called Nothing On.
The first of its three acts show dress rehearsal hiccups onstage, while the second, and funniest, follows the follies and foibles backstage on opening night. The third act depicts an onstage disaster on the last night of the play’s lacklustre tour, besmirched by soured love trysts and personality clashes.
Noises Off, so-called in reference to the sounds made off-stage during a performance, is set in minor touring venues throughout England. It could just as easily be set here in Canada, though. Had it been so, the audience might have followed the plot more easily in this Arts Club production currently on stage at the Stanley Theatre.
Alternatively, director Scott Bellis could have chosen to use Canadian accents ‘off-stage’ and English ones ‘ onstage’ to highlight the differences between the actors’ personas and their roles in the Nothing On cast. It would have helped more clearly define their characters.
As it stands, sketchy regional British accents, varying in degrees of accuracy and consistency, diminish plausibility. And the switching between ‘on’ and ‘off’ stage performances, using these varying accents, leaves the audience confused and frustrated.
Shakespeare’s advice to speak trippingly on the tongue could apply too. Many lines were gabbled with such velocity on opening night that it was difficult to catch their meaning. At other times, the cast trod on laughs.
While the establishment of characters, plot and comedy style became muddied in the first act, the ‘backstage’ mayhem in the second is superbly executed with spot-on pace and clarity.
Doors slam, pants drop, lenses disappear, ankles end up tied in knots, and actors fall with such deft precision that they beg gasps and spontaneous applause. The cast’s team-work reflects Frayn’s skilful construction.
Unfortunately, the happy momentum of the second act soon dissipated once the third got underway.
Noises Off by Michael Frayn. Directed by Scott Bellis. An Arts Club Theatre Company production on stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St, Vancouver) until February 23. Visit artsclub.com for tickets and information.