Noises Off. By Michael Frayn. Directed by Cate Clelland. Canberra Repertory Society. Theatre 3. Preview November 17 at 8pm, season November 18-December 3. Tickets $42/$36, preview $33. canberrarep.org.au or 62571950.
Seeing one act of a play performed three times in succession might sound tedious. Audiences, however, have not found this to be so when it's done as it is in Noises Off. Michael Frayn's 1982 farce takes its title from the theatrical stage direction for sounds coming from offstage and there are certainly plenty of those in this play, as well as an abundance of them onstage as well. Not to mention plenty of action.
Director Cate Clelland says, "It's a play about people putting on a play which also happens to be a farce and in the process we get to see the production process up close."
The play-within-the-play is called Nothing On, a very English farce of the pants-down, door-slamming variety, which is being rehearsed and toured by a theatre group after a rushed, inadequate two-week preparation.
In the first act, the audience sees the final dress rehearsal from the usual perspective, Clelland says. It's not going terribly well. Then things gets really interesting in the second act when the perspective shifts backstage.
"It's set a few weeks later and the audience gets to see what happens backstage when the show has gone into production."
The third and final act takes place once again from the front, at the end of the 12-week tour.
The audience uses knowledge gleaned about the play-within-the-play and about the cast and crew members and their feuds, flings and foibles to see how well things have progressed – or not, as the case may be.
Clelland says that if the secret to real estate is "location, location, location" then the secret to farce is "timing, timing, timing" and she has been working hard with her cast to ensure that lines, exits, entrances and other business are honed to maximum comic effect.
Since most of the cast in Noises Off are playing actors, they are, in effect, playing two parts, the offstage performers and the characters those performers enact in Nothing On, while those playing crew members have it a little easier, having only one role.
One of those in the latter group is Carla Weijers, who plays Poppy, the overworked and constantly stressed – both in her professional and personal lives – assistant stage manager.
"She's a lot more competent than her other helper, Tim [Brendan Kelly], the other stage manager," Weijers says.
Weijers had Clelland as a drama tutor at the Australian National University for three years and is herself now a drama teacher at Marist College, where earlier this year, working with Merici College and Canberra Girls' Grammar, she directed a production of Noises Off. While some changes had to be made to allow for the relative inexperience of the cast and the smaller scale of the production, she says it went well
Now her students will get a chance to see her tread the boards in a more elaborate production that will give them a chance to see, rather than be in, the play. It's her first production with Rep and her first time on stage in more than a decade (she has been a teacher for 11 years).
"I'm thoroughly enjoying it."
Weijers says the most embarrassing theatrical mishap she has witnessed was during a show where two young actors left their body mikes on when they walked offstage. One complained the audience hadn't laughed and the other, seeking to comfort her friend, said, "Don't worry, the audience are really crap tonight."
Then they realised what had happened.
"Luckily, the audience were able to laugh it off."
Fortunately, perhaps, for the cast of Noises Off, there won't be any body mikes in this production.