16 July 2017

Review: Noises Off

Noises Off
Melbourne Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre
12 July 2017
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 12 August

Nicki Wendt, Louise Siversen, Ray Chong Nee, Libby Munro, Simon Burke. Photo by Stephen Henry

In Michael Frayn's Noises Off, the satire is as sharp as its farce is infuriating and it celebrates English sex romps as much as it loves the people who made them. It won the 1982 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and its original and revival Broadway productions (1984, 2001, 2015) scored Tony nominations. It's a safe programming choice, as it pretty much guarantees full house, and this MTC and Queensland Theatre production is very safe.

Noises Off is about a UK touring production of a 1970's UK sex-romp where Arabs in sheets are a hoot and the women are semi-naked and young, sex-deprived and middle aged, or batty and crones. The tour, funded by one of the actors as her retirement fund, starts badly in Act 1 when the dress rehearsal is a disaster. Act 2 is seen from backstage at a matinee performance when the onstage interpersonal relationships are stronger than those of the cast, and Act 3 is what the show has become by the end of the season.

It's still set in the 1980s, which makes for some nostalgic costumes but doesn't reference anything about Australia or our theatre. How good would it have been to up the meta by having a 2017 company performing a 2017 company performing a safe 1982 farce and questioning all of the questionable on-stage choices and wondering why they're producing a 1982 British play? This lack of relevance makes the plodding pace of Act one seem even slower as the obvious jokes are over explained and the not-really-important plot of the play-within-the-play is made to feel important.

Acts two and three find the natural rhythm of the work, especially as the slapstick and physical humour are hilariously choreographed and the terrific cast nail the tone. There are plenty of laughs but there isn't equal focus on how the characters' lives are falling apart as much as their production is. When the actor-characters, who are playing stereotyped characters, have "theatre" personas that are closer to stereotype than archetype, there isn't room for the contrast and counterpoint that adds complex stakes and a dose of reality to the farce about a farce.

Funded companies have the time and resources to explore texts and question what we see on our stages. This Noises Off will do well because it's Noises Off, but it doesn't question why it was chosen in the first place or add anything new to the work or the genre. It's skim milk with a level spoon of Milo when it could be an outrageous iced chocolate made with free-trade couverture and freshly churned ice cream that's too outrageous to finish.

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