By Michael Frayn
Directed by Blanche McIntyre
Set Design – Robert Innes Hopkins
Nuffield Theatre, Nottingham Playhouse & Northern Stage Production
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
Monday 20th June 2016, 7.30 pm
Nuffield Theatre, University of Southampton
- Ritu Arya – Poppy Norton-Taylor, Assistant stage manager, understudy to Brooke
- Robin Bowerman – Selsdon Mowbray, ageing thespian
- John Elkington – Frederick Fellows, actor, serious, a bit dim
- Becci Gemmell – Belinda Blair, actress, cheerful and reliable
- Brian Lonsdale – Tim Allgood, stage manager, understudy to Selsdon & Freddy
- Carla Mendonça – Dotty Otley, who has money in the production
- Sophia Nomvete – Brooke Ashton, young inexperienced actress
- Patrick Osborne – Garry Lejuene, actor
- Orlando Wells – Lloyd Dallas, director of the play
ROLES IN “NOTHING ON”
Mrs Clackett (Dotty) a housekeeper to the Brents
Roger (Garry), an estate agent
Vicki (Brooke) works for tax office, is screwing Roger
Philip Brent (Freddy) lives abroad to avoid taxes and is on a secret visit to arrange house letting
Flavia Brent (Belinda) wife of Philip
Burglar (Selsdon) old man who breaks into the house
Sheikh (Freddy) who wants to rent the house. The Sheikh is a double of Philip
How we love a play within a play, from Pyramus & Thisbe on, and Noises Off is the ultimate 20th century example, ever since it was first seen in 1982. That ran for years, then there were major new productions in 2000 and 2012, for which Michael Frayn tweaked it. He says he was originally inspired by watching a production of one of his farces from the wings, and realizing the double level (backstage and onstage) of panic and interaction was funnier from the wings than it was from the auditorium. Its influences are wide, with The Play What Went Wrong still running in London, or the 2014 Importance of Being Earnest as performed by an amateur company. Back in the 1970s, we used to do a skit in our ELT shows that we adapted from The Two Ronnies about an amateur production where an accident means the local butcher has to read in a part, having never seen the play. So, ignoring the large bowl of fruit, he delivers the line I feel like a nice pear staring into an actress’s cleavage. The difference with Noises Off is that we see a professional company screwing it up.
We missed the 2012 tour, and I fear a theatre-snob Mousetrap prejudice leads me away from stuff that has run for years with ever-changing cast lists on never-ending tours. So I was delighted to see a fresh new Blanche McIntyre production for 2016 at the Nuffield. We had tickets two weeks ago, but a family emergency meant we couldn’t go, and in spite of several texts with “Do you want our tickets (free) for Noises Off at Southampton in two hours time? You’ll have to leave now” the cast had to face two empty seats in the prominent (best) Row L where the rake begins. So we bought new tickets.
The set for “Nothing On” from the front. L to R: Mrs Clackett, Vicki, Roger, Philip, Flavia, Tim, Lloyd
The plot centres on the production of a farce called Nothing On. I often rail against over-use of exclamation marks, but this sort of play in a seaside theatre would have at least one: Nothing On! So there is underuse of exclamation by Michael Frayn.
There are three acts, each containing an attempt to perform the first act of Nothing On, a boisterous and saucy farce by Robin Housemonger. It’s the sort of play that Bournemouth’s Pier Theatre played every summer. I loved them. They always had good comediennes in the lead role. I remember Su Pollard fondly as well as Britt Ekland one summer. I will add that farce is very hard to do well.
The director Lloyd Dallas (Orlando Wells) with ASM Poppy (Ritu Arya)
The first act is the technical rehearsal of Nothing On in Weston-Super-Mare, with director interventions. It needs setting up so that we know the plot and action of the whole act, roughly as it’s meant to be. I was reminded of Frayn’s on the difference in seeing a play from the wings. We wished we had. We had the man who coughed every minute or less, no hand on mouth, interspersed with waving his large snotty handkerchief through the air next to us. Fortunately the Nuffield is rarely full, or near full, and we moved a long way away in the interval. I must start carrying Olbas pastilles, or Fisherman’s Friend or a bottle of water. Why people with a persistent cough don’t carry one of the three is beyond me. Salisbury sensibly sells Locketts. So it was hard to relax and concentrate. It’s a huge tribute to the intrinsic play and performances that we could. Wiki describes Freddy as dim and pompous, and Garry as a stutterer … neither were true here. I liked Freddy’s stolid insistence on back story and reasons for actions, and Lloyd being driven to invent rationale to satisfy him. I’ve met a few actors like that on video shoots … in fact most Americans ask all those questions. They’re trained to do so. As a scriptwriter on set, the director would inevitably ask me to answer them.In this one, Freddy, playing both the Sheikh and Philip Brent wonder why they look identical … as ever the Stage Manager is confusing the issue dressed as Philip.
L to R: Roger the estate agent, (Patrick Osborne as Garry), Vicki the tax officer(Sophia Nomvete as Brooke), The Sheikh (John Elkington as Freddy), Mrs Clackett (Carlo Mendoza as Dotty)
The interval comes at the end.
Act 2: backstage – a set model, I think
The second act is a Wednesday matinee, one month later, in Ashton-Under-Lyme, and we see the play from backstage. The whole set has turned 180 °. This is the core of the play with the funniest action and ensemble playing. This is where the cast interactions are fleshed out. Director Lloyd has deserted his production of Richard III in Aberystwyth to be there. We find he is in a love triangle with Brooke and Poppy. He has come to soothe choppy waters with Brooke, but Poppy is pregnant.
Poppy the ASM (Ritu Arya) thanks stage manager Tim (Brian Lonsdale) for the flowers that were intended for Brooke.
There are a series of misunderstandings where Tim, the stage manager, is despatched to buy flowers, and there’s the need to hide the whisky Lloyd has brought from Seldon. He has to keep buying more and ever smaller bunches as the wrong people keep getting them
Dotty (Carla Mendoça) and Freddy (John Elkington) struggle backstage in Act 2
Then there’s the other triangle. Garry is in love with Dotty, but she has been confiding very closely with Freddy. Garry is incensed and becomes murderously angry. This is a festival of door slamming, and the action backstage becomes frantic and highly physical. . I’ll never forget Garry’s shoelaces being tied together, nor Lloyd having cactus spines extracted from his bare bottom, while the play carries on beyond the set.
Brooke plays the saucy tax officer Vicki in “Nothing On” (Sophia Nomvete)
The Act 2 / Act 3 connecting curtain work reminded me of doing lights on Tommy Cooper who specialized in getting lost in the curtains. There are marvelous bits with Tim and Poppy repeating each other’s announcements, as at the start of Act 2.
The third act is nearing the end of the ten week tour in Stockton-On-Tees. The direction has long been abandoned and they ad-lib their way towards the end. Tim, the stage manager comes into his own as an understudy. The final curtain call is great.
Roger the estate agent, played by Garry (Patrick Osborne)
So every one has to play an actor, and then an actor performing a role. The play works, we know that. It has done for years. The ensemble work is incredibly hard to execute this well … it takes more skill to do stuff deliberately badly well than it does to do it right. That means that in terms of physical action, they should be just “off” doing Nothing On in Act 1, but spot on timing in Act 2, which is backstage so “the actors themselves.” They succeed.
While Frayn tweaked it for Jeremy Sams at the National in 2000, I wonder about the era. There are still plenty of touring productions, though so often now they do three days rather than a week. The major 1982 to 2016 difference is that a multi-ethnic, probably colour blind cast is highly likely now, as here. In a farce, it might be an aspect to include, rather than ignore.
The plot hinge in Nothing On, that Philip and Flavia Brent are tax exiles in Spain, who will lose their non-domicile status if they come to Britain (which they have) is very 1982. I guess this is set in 1982 too. Whether Nothing On remains 1982, but the surround backstage story is 1980s or contemporary is a moot point. I assume from Poppy’s stage clothes that “backstage” is more or less “now.”
Selsdon plays the burglar in “Nothing On” (Robin Bowerman)
It does rely on well-known Thespian clichés, and the long phone plot and character explanation by the housekeeper at the start of Nothing On mirrors Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound (1962), which in turn was sending up the whole 1920s-1950s thriller genre. An interesting comparison is Secondary Cause of Death by Peter Gordon earlier this year, another send up (also with the two identical characters played by the same actor). I thought the seasoned farce / comedy actors in that had a snap and timing to their door slamming which this version of Noises Off didn’t quite match, but nor did Branagh and Brydon in The Painkiller either. Still it was very good, very funny in every role.
The difficulty with this kind of full on boisterous farce is that to work its total magic, it needs a stage-audience electricity to build, and with the usual more than half-empty Nuffield on a Monday night, you are in the equivalent of Nothing On’s Wednesday afternoon matinee in Ashton-Under-Lyme in Act 2. That’s why I’m being mean with stars and giving it three as an overall theatrical experience. I think a Friday night or Saturday night with a responsive full house (so probably in a different town) would be an easy four stars.
* * *
They had sold out, a fair old loss of revenue at £3.50 or whatever per couple. The Nuffield had fortunately photocopied the essential and hilarious “Nothing On” programme, which is inserted in the middle of a real one, and it was free.
Alfred Hickling, The Guardian * * * * (Nottingham run)
The Times * * * *
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