Let’s get farcical
Review by Sean McQuaid
Florence Simmons Performance Hall
May 6, 2023
One of my all-time favourite TV series is The Muppet Show (1976-1981, now on Disney Plus), in which the titular Muppets stage a wacky weekly theatrical variety show. Part of the series’ charm is its mix of on-stage performance and backstage hijinks, with the latter often matching or surpassing the former. PEI community theatre institution ACT’s first post-pandemic production, Noises Off, pushes similarly meta comedy buttons to good effect with its tale of a touring theatrical farce gone farcically wrong.
Originating as obscure one-act play Exits by British playwright Michael Frayn in 1977, the script was revised and expanded by Frayn into full-length comedic farce Noises Off in 1982. A very palpable hit scoring long runs in the West End and on Broadway, it’s become an oft-revived theatre staple around the world, repeatedly rewritten further by the oft-tinkering Frayn over the decades (and revised a bit further here by ACT to add local Maritime/PEI references).
Noises Off follows a touring theatrical production of Nothing On, a none-too-clever naughty comedic farce set in a stately country home. We only ever see the first act of this plodding play-within-a-play, but we see it three times in the three acts of Noises Off: the last rehearsal before opening night, a subsequent matinee performance, and another performance late in the tour, each version worse than the last due to assorted personality clashes and backstage shenanigans. The result is a farce within a farce, a tasty theatrical turducken of a comedy.
Frayn’s slow-burn script takes its time getting to the good stuff. Act one’s rehearsal phase is only moderately, intermittently funny as it introduces both the characters and their doomed show; but it’s essential groundwork for bigger laughs to come, since seeing and hearing in exhaustive, borderline-tedious detail how Nothing On is supposed to look and sound makes it so much funnier when the show lurches ever more drastically off course in acts two and three.
Nothing On’s fractious cast includes Dotty Oatley (played here by ACT producer/publicist Marti Hopson), Garry Lejeune (Colin Hood), Freddy Fellowes (Noah Nazim), Selsdon Mowbray (Brian Collins), Brooke Ashton (Amanda Rae Donovan) and Belinda Blair (Laura Stapleton), plus understudies/stage managers Poppy Norton-Taylor (Amy Sobol) and Tim Allgood (Mike Mallaley) and their director Lloyd Dallas (Richard Haines). That’s a lot of balls to juggle cast-wise, and Noises Off director Keir Malone keeps them all in motion deftly; entrances, exits, blocking, pacing, energy, tone, slapstick physicality, his unified and adept ensemble has it covered.
But uniquely hearty kudos go to key crew like stage manager Sharon MacDonald, assistant stage managers Lindsay Schieck (full disclosure: this reviewer’s cousin) and Afton Mondoux, set designer/builder Garnett Gallant, set construction crew Cyril Armstrong and Greg Ellard, set coordinator Brian Matthie and assorted stagehands for the creation and management of one of the biggest, most elaborate and impressively detailed sets in the annals of PEI community theatre: the lavish Nothing On country home set, which flips around and reshuffles its components between acts to become an equally extensive backstage environment, both two-story structures with doors aplenty and fully functional stairs.
It’s a testament to director Malone, producer Hopson, their crew and the show’s sponsors that this set exists at all, a remarkable feat of aesthetics, financing and engineering. It’s not without its drawbacks – the set transformation between acts is a lengthy, labor-intensive process which further stretches out an already long play—but it’s a dang impressive set all the same, the bravura highlight of a smart, polished, often laugh-out-loud funny production.