Event Review: Noises Off
This year's Bede's School Play was a riotous frenzy of fluffed lines, physical violence and secret lover's trysts.
The props never seemed to be where they were needed, the set refused to bend to the actors' will and things got so bad at moments that some cast members abandoned all hope and hit the bottle.
Thankfully, all of the above was by design - something which seemed to take those audience members unfamiliar with Michael Frayn's classic farce Noises Off by total and joyful surprise.
The shenanigans began earnestly enough, with Ruth Godfrey's Dotty Otley delivering a rip-roaring comic soliloquy into a period, 1980s telephone handset. Before long however, lines were botched, cues forgotten and the director, Joe Robson's Lloyd Dallas, had no choice but to intervene.
Robson, playing well beyond his years, did well to contain his character's very evident rage - spinning from sleazy lothario to bitingly sarcastic incompetent, he was a consistent joy to watch from the moment he stepped out of the audience and into the unfolding drama.
Considering the nature of Noises Off, a play about underprepared actors staging an underprepared production, it was a true testament to the young cast that the storyline was so adeptly communicated. No small credit for this goes to Harvey Cole who not only demonstrated a gift for comic timing but also a superb capacity for accents: as dim but well-meaning actor Garry Lejeune he adopted a pitch-perfect cockney accent, yet when Garry snapped into character as Roger Trampelmain Harvey spoke with an unnervingly high-born foppishness.
The distinction made between the young cast's "actor" characters and their respective alter egos was clarified all the more starkly by Laura Adebisi's Poppy and Theo Morse's Tim, two members of the play-within-a-play's production team.
Both actors, despite relatively brief periods in the limelight, conducted themselves incredibly. Adebisi, for one, showed a capacity for both comedic mania and put-upon pathos while Morse walked a fine line between hang-dog and earnest that enabled his fellow cast members to truly cut loose.
Those familiar with the play will know that Noises Off is very much a tale of two halves. The first is almost a conventional comedy, with the actors facing the audience in front of the (as previously mentioned) amusingly dysfunctional set, designed by Mr Waring and his capable Theatre Production helpers Ben Laws, Matt Jebb and Ambra Fuller.
The second half of the Bede's production then undertook a grand reveal however, with the entire set turning 180 degrees to expose a backstage area covered in props, cues and secret stairways and platforms.
Although jolly good fun during the opening act, it was only once this mind-boggling feat of engineering had been revealed that the Bede's rendition of Noises Off truly became hysterical.
Having previously been the story of a shoddy dress rehearsal, audiences in the Miles Studio Theatre were latterly invited to catch up with the actors midway through the tour of "Nothing's On", by which time illicit relationships had soured, additional affairs had occurred and characters with bad habits - such as Louis Muston's doddery alcoholic Selsdon Mowbray - had been forced to keep their vices at bay.
On the night Act Two takes place, a bottle of whiskey, a bunch of flowers and a web of sexual impropriety all acted as catalysts for a veritable barrage of almost silent comedy gold. Muston, for one, may have made a late entry in the first act but, almost like the production as a whole, he made an indelible mark in the second and commanded a stage presence which seemed at odd with his youth and physical stature.
The lynchpin of the fictional production's dysfunction meanwhile was Millie Prow's Belinda Blair, a character who thrives on (and stirs up) backstage drama as much as she is interested in whatever is happening out front. A victim of her own machinations, Belinda acts to try and circumvent violence and miscommunication, providing Millie with ample opportunities for verbal and physical clowning which she grasped with both hands.
Acting almost as a foil to Belinda was Brooke, played by Grace Longdon. A character with little up top but a lot out front, Longdon held down the physical challenges of her part with finesse: Brooke may not be a character from whom punchlines sally forth but Grace's physical presence and strong delivery enabled her character's swift changes from bimbonic cluelessness to emotional outburst to both land and resonate with the audience.
Elsewhere, consistently charismatic and thoroughly good-natured, Dan Grimston's Frederick Fellowes necessitated the curation of not only two characters but a third in the form of an Arab sheikh.
As the first of many performers to lose their trousers during the show, Dan played Frederick delightfully; thoroughly good natured but both theatrically incapable and thick as two short planks, Dan seemed to pivot from set piece to set piece almost without effort. He acted not just as the butt of jokes but as the sympathetic victim of his cast-mates' envy and malice.
Amongst a strong cast, special credit must go to Ruth Godfrey whose opening, gag-filled monologue only hinted at the hilarity she was set to unleash across the course of the production; with such an extraordinarily expressive face, accentuated by some truly garish makeup, there was rarely a moment where she was on stage which didn't raise at least a smile.
Indeed, a particular highlight, which involved Ruth being assaulted with a tray of sardines - complete with grimly-dripping jelly - lit the fuse on a flurry of carefully orchestrated comic action which hit home hard and prompted belly-laugh after belly-laugh in relentless succession.
Considering its status as such a physically demanding and technically challenging play, Noises Off was always going to be an ambitious choice for this year's main school show. Thankfully, Mrs Lewis, ably assisted by her highly competent cast and crew, delivered on the promise of a night of ridiculous, farcical comedy.
If you saw the production on the evenings of the 19, 20 and 22 November then you will likely attest that Noises Off at Bede's was a delight. The only shame is that so many members of the cast will be leaving after completing their Upper Sixth year next summer - although it seems highly unlikely that this will be the last we see of many of this talented cohort.