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November 15 2015, Reviews The Phoebe Rees Competition
12065673_902004066555917_1031081804910871915_nBy Philip de Glanville


The are lots of plays around which poke fun at amateur theatre, not only its stereotypical onstage incompetence – Rick Abbot’s Play On is an example, as is the almost endless Farndale Avenue series –but also its ill-deserved reputation for shameless offstage philandering, as in Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval. And I hear that The Play That Goes Wrong is another production which takes a swipe at the world of am-dram and is currently wowing them in the West End; its obviously going to be quite a while before that becomes available for amateur performance!

Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, redresses the balance a little by taking an equally wry look at how the professionals do it – in this case a distinctly 4th rate touring company called Otstar Productions who are taking a truly dreadful bedroom farce around the provinces. Actually we only ever see the first act of ‘Nothing On’ – initially in its tech/dress phase which is dragging on well after midnight (been there?), and then after the interval we watch it again at the Theatre Royal, Ashton-under-Lyne, but this time from backstage, and then finally the set revolves once more and we see a truncated version of the very last disastrous performance at the Municipal Theatre, Stockton on Tees.

Otstar Productions is the vanity project of Dotty Otley, the aging (and fading) TV star of the exceptionally long-running On The Zebras, beautifully played by Karen Trevis. Dotty has invested money in the show, and is employing Lloyd Dallas (Edgar Phillips) to direct it. She has gathered around her a cast of luvvies, all of whom appear to be sliding downhill in their careers, not least of whom is youthful Gary Lejeune (the ever-young Paul Townsend, still bounding with energy) with whom Dotty has been having an affair, and who also famously (and very bravely) slides down the stairs, twice nightly.

Others in the ensemble were Street Theatre stalwarts Elaine Morgan, delightfully decorative in scanty underwear most of the time as the detached Brooke Ashton, John McGrouther as a highly neurotic Frederick Fellowes, the wonderful Elaine Hayne as a very comfortable and comforting Belinda Blair, and Bruce Borquin as the charmingly deaf old stager Selsdon Mowbray. In support were Kevin Hardacre as poor long-suffering Tim Allgood and Charlotte Hide as dear hardworking Poppy.

Almost an additional cast member was the set – lovingly (and very sturdily) built by Bob Price, Mike Kempton and Phil Elliss. We were allowed to watch it revolve majestically to the strains of The Blue Danube in the interval between Acts 2 and 3, and it got its own round of applause as a result!

Not only was Ed playing Lloyd (having had to take over the role with only about a month to go) but he was also the director of Noises Off and having to fulfil both functions was possibly a step too far, particularly considering that this is his directorial debut. In my view Michael Frayn’s play is extraordinarily difficult to pull off successfully, and it seemed to me that Edgar used up virtually all his exceptional creativity in trying to do so, leaving very little over for acting. The second act in particular is a nightmare to direct; about 30 minutes of frantic dumbshow played out in complete silence on the apron while through the window we watch, and hear, the performance grinding on in the upstage acting area; it calls for exquisite timing and pin-point accuracy in directing the audience’s attention where you want it, moment by moment.

The capacity audience certainly appreciated the skill and energy involved and were enormously enthusiastic, but I don’t think we saw the play reach its full comic potential until well into Act 3 when it became deliriously funny as a result of some cracking pace and wonderful timing from the cast. And we absolutely roared with laughter! Bravo!