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Book Report: Noises Off

Your Humble Blogger happened to see a backstage farce this summer. That play is new, funny, badly constructed, and in need of some serious tweaking. The audiences laughed a lot, which is a good sign, but the review was vicious, which is a bad one. Inevitably, the review compared the play to Noises Off, and it turns out ... that Noises Off is superior! Shock! Alarum! Plays that are inferior to Noises Off include every single farce ever written. That’s not bad company, when you think about it. Backstage farces that are inferior to Noises Off include every single backstage farce ever written; if I were to write a backstage farce, my goal would be to be, say, two-thirds as well-framed, well-written and well-conceived as Noises Off, and if I failed at that goal by, say, two-thirds, it might still be a very funny play. And if that play were reviewed, the reviewer would have to say that my play was no Noises Off.

Your Humble Blogger, with all the will in the world, could not help making the unfair comparison. And then I couldn’t help going back and reading my copy. And then, whilst rereading a play that I had memorized at one point, I couldn’t help collapsing in laughter. The sardines! The axe! The bottle! The trousers! The bag! The box! Bag! Box! They’ve both ... not ... gone. He’ll need them in the ... you know, so I’ll put them in the ... I mean, Christ!

This time rereading, I was struck by the way that each character has not one but two comic traits, and in some cases, three. Lloyd is an irritable, ineffectual (but sane!) director, but he is also an aging lothario without conscience or scruple. Dotty is an elderly and egocentric comic actress (based, evidently, on Lynn Redgrave) who can’t remember her lines, but she’s also sexually voracious and viciously vengeful. Brooke is ditsy and busty, but she’s also comically unable to improvise. Roger is inarticulate, which makes his attempts to improvise with Brooke even better, but he is also (despite his jealousy) fundamentally good-hearted, and one of the few who seriously attempts to keep the play going. Freddy is dim-witted, but he’s also ... really dim-witted.

My point is not that the characters are well-developed; it’s a farce, and the characters are farce characters, as they should be, with all the depth of their pancake makeup. No, my point is that the characters have more than one joke associated with them; in any given scene, Michael Frayn can choose between two or three running jokes, picking whichever is funniest at the moment. It gives the actors two or three kinds of shtick to work with, picking whichever is funnier at the moment. It gives the audience two or three ways to expect a particular set-up to play out, and allows the possibility of surprise—not total surprise, of course, but there is more than one obvious punch-line, and you don’t know which you’ll be hit with.

Observe, ye writers of farce, and learn!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,