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On the Noises Off

So. One of the things about Noises Off is that while it’s the funniest play ever written, and a lot of fun to perform in, it is in many ways not a very interesting play to produce. There are very few big choices to make—the set, for instance, must be almost exactly as described by the playwright or the action won’t work. That action is set out in detail, and very few particular bits can be significantly changed without tearing apart the fabric of the farce. Even the character choices are constrained more in this play than in most plays I have been involved with a production of, largely because of the play of stereotypes, but also because of the thickness (if you know what I mean) of the gags. This isn’t a drawback of the play, but it is a drawback to writing about the production of the play.

Not that one production can’t be better than another, mind you. Some productions will be funnier simply because the timing is better, the physical gags smoother, the voices and walks and facial expressions more or less risible. I have seen a group of high schoolers put on the show without understanding the dirty jokes—or possibly, it now occurs to me, whilst pretending not to understand the dirty jokes, possibly under orders from the director. At any rate, it was still funny, although not as funny. But my point is that while one production will be better and funnier than another, all the productions will for the most part look and feel the same.

The one big directorial choice, it seems to me, is whether this is a group of talented and professional farceurs who, under better circumstances, would be doing a fine job with, or whether this is a crew of pathetic incompetents reaching their level. Essentially, the choice of incompetence allows for extra gags on a moment-to-moment level, while the choice of competence allows for a greater sympathy for the cast in their disaster, and presumably a farther fall to the third act. I don’t think one is better than the other necessarily, being rather a decision of balance that lies within directorial discretion. Although that discretion might properly depend on the actors and their abilities.

Our director has chosen the competence route. I like it, myself, if only because the last time we went the other way. I like to think that some of the audience will leave feeling at least mildly disappointed that they didn’t get to see an actual production of Nothing On with our cast.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I am sorry that I will not have the chance to see this production of Noises Off to see how competence plays. It's easier to see with some characters than with others, as I don't quite see how some of the major jokes would play if the characters are not inadequate to the situation. I suppose one could say that Freddie is a perfectly competent actor, but he's also dim to a degree that would seem to influence his competence. If Brooke isn't incompetent in certain respects, then she must have a rather vicious streak to hang Gary out to dry like that? And Gary may be a perfectly competent actor in most respects, but his inability to complete a sentence of his own with clarity negatively impacts his improvisation, doesn't it?

Perhaps, when I look at it, what I am seeing is that the characters are simply flawed in a particular way that proves disastrous in the context of this production of Nothing On and that in other contexts the characters would be perfectly competent professionals. In some of the cases, the flaws run deep enough that I see the possibility of competence in other contexts as doubtful. Perhaps if Lloyd had a cast of bright, capable actors of staunch moral fibre to keep him in line, he would be a perfectly sound director, but his flaws of insensitivity, impatience, and licentiousness would see to be drawbacks that would frequently undermine the results of his artistic designs, however competently conceived. Or is it his contempt for the material he is working with and artistic burn-out that have brought out the worst in him? I could see that.

Well, first of all, the history of theater is full of directors who are insensitive, impatient and licentious; some of them are geniuses and some of them are bastards, but Lloyd's scarcely the worst of them. Possibly not even the worst I personally have worked for.

Garry's inarticulacy makes it difficult for him to improvise, but ordinarily one wouldn't need much verbal improvisation in a farce, and he is in fact able to think on his feet, even if he can't express those thoughts in, I mean, you know. Freddie is fine as long as there's no blood, which again shouldn't really detract from his ability to act in a farce—he is incredibly dim, but no more dim than many tenors actors in that sort of role, and when given a note by the director, follows that note. Belinda, of course, is quite good at improvising and is generally capable, and Dottie, while she can't remember the actual lines or the blocking, has a sort of genius for making them up as she goes along. Selsdon, actually, is hard to trust, particularly in the revised script where he cannot remember his lines at all, and of course there's the drinking. On the other hand, Selsdon is an Old Hand in a small role, and can certainly be played as good at it when he is sober and remembers the lines.

As you point out, Brooke is the most difficult to think of as skilled—the specific way in which she is unable to improvise makes it difficult to believe that she would be able to respond to the ordinary course of a show, reacting to the rest of the cast in ways we don't think of as improvising but as acting. On the other hand, she is playing the ingenue, so as long as she is appropriately leggy (or busty, or preferably both), knows the lines and stays in the light, I could see her as a weakish link rather than as a disaster.

Again, with enough rehearsal (a fortnight ought to be enough, but they needed at least some time on the set) and better technical support (poor Tim has to do everything himself, which ate into the rehearsal time on set) and without the affairs coming to a head when they do (including poor Freddie's wife), and possibly with a little more sleep as well, the show might not go off the rails in the first place, and then the limitations of the cast wouldn't cause further disasters.

Although I do have to say that the deliberate sabotage inflicted by the cast during Act Two (and at least implied during Act Three) is not consistent with competent professionals in real life, but the audience are led to believe that they are at that point half-crazy with jealousy, whiskey and desperation at that point, I suppose.


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