Like microcosms of culture that demand their own lexicon, the theatre world has a lingo with which not everyone may be familiar. In the wings of the theater, when stage direction indicates sound coming from offstage, it’s called “noises off.” When those sounds represent a host of comedy, it’s also called “Noises Off”—a show written by Michael Frayn, which debuted in 1982, and starred Patti LuPone and Peter Gallaghar.
Essentially a play within a play, Frayn wrote the farce after watching Lynn Redgrave perform in his other show, “The Two of Us.” He was watching from the wings and thought the backstage antics were as entertaining as what was happening onstage. Thus, he decided to create merry mayhem in a behind-the-scenes plot following performers in the play “Nothing On.” “Noises Off” features a ragtag group of bumbling actors attempting to put on a modern-day 16th-century show, featuring half-dressed women and men running about, slamming doors and attempting to get their hands on disappearing sardines. The actors’ relationships decline throughout the run of “Nothing On,” and therefore create greater drama and comedy in what the audience is seeing in “Noises Off.”
Thalian Association will open “Noises Off” on Thursday at Thalian Hall, with Robb Mann directing the farce. His cast members play multiple roles to bring to life frenzied hilarity in the play within a play. It’s a duality of performance art that pushes actors beyond their limits. Maintaining comedic timing is the trick to ensuring all jokes pay off.
“I believe it to be the most difficult ‘theatre’ to pull off,” Eric Robinson, who plays Selsdon Mowbray, an elder alcoholic Englishman, and the Burglar, an elder cockney thief. “Timing is everything, but when one gets it ‘right,’ it is terrific for the actor and the audience.”
In the lead as Freddy is Josh Bailey (also a local playwright coming off a successful original script, “Greedy,” which is staged at Browncoat currently). Bailey also must portray Phillip Brent and Sheikh. His trifecta of personas prove much different from real life.
“It’s definitely a challenge to get into the head space of someone who lives so utterly and totally in the moment, rather than thinking about all the possibilities or potentialities,” Bailey tells. “While Freddy could easily be described as ‘dumb,’ he has the freedom and happiness that comes from not realizing how dreadful things could actually be. If I’m learning anything from him, it’s to live in the moment—and watch out for plates of sardines.”
Playing Freddy’s wife, Belinda (who also plays Flavia), is Amanda Young. Unlike Bailey’s role, Young says she connects with Belinda fundamentally. “She is probably the most similar to me of any role I’ve played,” Young confirms. “Although, I like to think I don’t gossip quite as much as she does. She is optimistic and peace-loving, and tries through most of the show to calm the storms going on around her—without much success, I’m afraid.”
The interactions between the two, as well as with the cast as a whole, provide the foundation of the show: to succeed in making the audience laugh. Mann says to accomplish this style of comedy, actors must nail the choreography of merging the verbal with the physical in syncopated rhythm.
“The secret is having the actors commit their characters 110 percent to the situation,” Mann tells. “The more important something is to someone, the greater lengths they will go through to get it. If you have that type of commitment from everyone, the ridiculous things they’re doing onstage suddenly becomes plausible enough for the audience to suspend disbelief.”
This means, according to Bailey, letting go of that which restrains actors. It also means having to control emotions tenfold.
“Every single rehearsal has had us all laughing at trying to figure out where the many plates of sardines are and what doors to come out of or go in to,” says Denise Bass, who plays Dotty—an older American actress playing a cockney housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett. “The toughest part is getting to the point where you can do the lines without breaking character and laughing. We haven’t gotten there yet. It’s very similar to the old Carol Burnett shows when Tim Conway and Harvey Korman would try so hard not to laugh—and that turned out to be funnier than the skit itself.”
Its British comedy roots means the laughs are quick and dry. Qaadir Hicks plays Tim Allgood, an American assistant stage manager, who is also the understudy to Selsdon and Freddy.
“I love that Tim is on the verge of exploding but tries to remain calm and reserved,” Hicks tells. “He’s really good at his job, but that’s in part because he’s a little manic. He was an accountant before he got into theater and I think there’s a controlling aspect to people who enjoy working with numbers. Tim reminds me of the important role that everyone has when it comes to producing a play: You can’t do a show without actors or a stage manager!”