Comedy is just as popular as drama, but it can be a difficult subject to pull off onstage. If not done properly, one risks losing or confusing the audience. Luckily, playwrights like Michael Frayn have a knack for “getting it” when it comes to making people laugh. One such example is Frayn’s 1982 play titled Noises Off.
“It’s a finely crafted piece of comedy,” says Scott Thomas, who is performing in the cast as Garry Lejeune. “So I love the precision that Frayn has put into the script over time.”
Directed by Bob Doherty, Noises Off is being performed by the Saint John Theatre Company at the Imperial Theatre. The show is the company’s third production of the play in the last seventeen years; earlier runs of Noises Off were staged in 1999 and 2006, respectively.
Noises Off depicts a troupe of actors who are doing a play called Nothing On. The main narrative focuses on the various problems and setbacks that occur in theatre, while “the play-within-the-play” concerns a British playwright and his wife tangling with realtors, prospective tenants, a housekeeper and a thief. The script has three acts that are each titled “Act One”, depicting a dress rehearsal, a two performances of the play, Nothing On.
Director Lloyd Dallas (played by Rob Jeffrey) is determined to get through the dress rehearsal, because it is one night before the show opens. However, the cast misses cues and exits, flubs their lines, and struggles with various props. It is clear that they are woefully unprepared and beset with numerous problems.
Having previously starred as Lloyd in the 2006 production, Scott Thomas (Roger) loves Noises Off for its writing and zany humour.
Thomas notes, “It also has some of my favourite comic elements, people too confident for their own good dealing with situations they can’t control and getting progressively worse.”
Within the context of Nothing On, the action revolves around a British playwright Phillip Brent (Jeff Smith) and his wife Flavia (Lindsay Bell), who are trying to avoid tax authorities while on a secret visit to England. Their efforts to find time for intimacy are hindered by the unexpected presence of real estate agent Roger (Scott Thomas), his prospective love interest Vicki (Chelsea Johnson), and the well-meaning housekeeper Mrs. Clackett (Sandra Bell), who is continually preparing sardines. Meanwhile, a burglar (Scott Brownlee) attempts to rob the posset mill, throwing the group into confusion.
“My favourite moments are probably in Act Three, when things are really at their worst,” Thomas says.
“To see people drain with all of that nonsense is just brilliant. No one will stop and say, ‘Hey, something’s wrong!’ Instead they just keep throwing fuel on the fire, and it’s brilliant.”
The cast does well on stage, proving that chemistry is effective to performance. Rob Jeffrey is in fine form as the high-strung Lloyd, who attempts to keep the show going while trying to control his temper. Sandra Bell is a delight as Dottie and Mrs. Clackett, especially when having to handle sardines.
Hatfield and Johnson are both believable as Poppy and Brooke, particularly in dealing with Jeffrey. Smith and Lindsay Bell are hilarious as two characters struggling with their lines. As Tim, Dewayne Keating displays a keen sense of comedic timing, and his overworked manner is amusing to watch.
Thomas acknowledges that both comedy and drama are equally challenging, especially when performing to live audiences. “Both forms, when done well, require all your skills and focus,” he explains. “I will say this- it’s 100 times worse to be in a crappy comedy than in a crappy drama.”
Even more troubling is the prospect of playing to a silent crowd. For Thomas, he knows the feeling all too well, citing the nature of audiences when it comes to different genres.
“Sometimes, in a drama, people just don’t think they get it, but mostly they are quiet,” he says. “In a comedy, when it’s bad and there are no laughs- it’s torture. Luckily, those situations have been very few in my life.”
Noises Off finished it’s run at the Imperial theatre on April 2.