Under the strong direction of Keshini de Mel, the SUDS major production for 2019 successfully adapts English playwright Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. With a razor-sharp wit, the production blends slapstick, farce and irony to provide audiences with one of the funniest plays of the year.
At the centrepiece of the action is a play-within-a-play, the bedroom farce called Nothing On. The production begins before the opening night of Nothing On, situating the viewer in the humdrum of the final dress rehearsal which features an under-talented cast, an overworked crew, forgotten lines, and an aura of total calamity in the air. The impeccable cast sells their on-stage mediocrity with hilarious running gags and a cutting satire that exemplifies the self-destructive egomania required for (even mediocre) art.
The production, lighting and sound design are all carefully executed. While the set stays fundamentally the same, the audience’s perspective shifts between front and back views of the play-within-a-play. We therefore become witnesses to the falseness of theatre — we are shown every fabrication of reality as the actors and directors manipulate the workings of the stage (and at many times throughout the play, fail to). But since this manipulation falls within the domain of the play-within-the-play, we feel uncomfortably immersed in the near equal farce of the actors’ lives — their vices, their follies and their instability. The farce of Nothing On begins to consume the lives of the actors participating in it. At many points, the audience directly engages with the actors (of Noises Off) themselves, as they rearrange the sets themselves. Moments like these continually blur the lines between reality, and the many layers of fiction permeating the production. The work of the director, production team and crew have to be commended for the sheer force and humour of the play.
The performances are all memorable and hilarious, contributing to the rich interpersonal drama between the cast. Some of the performance highlights come from the absurdity of the play-within-the-play. Ruby Blinkhorn excels in her animated performance in the play-within-a-play as Mrs. Clackett, the cockney housekeeper and sardine enthusiast. Deftly juggling two contrasting roles, Hannah Heyen shines as disinterested young actress Brooke, and ironic seductress/tax agent Vicki. The lighthearted fantasy of Nothing On is juxtaposed with the dark underbelly of Noises Off, as themes of hypermasculine violence, abuse and exploitation of power come to the surface. In this regard, Joe Ingui excels as the arrogant, exploitative director Lloyd Dallas, a disturbing figure who feels uncomfortably familiar to us in the age of #MeToo.
SUDS’ Noises Off succeeds as a topical comedy that is exciting, thoughtful and memorable. The performance lit up the Darling Quarter theatre on opening night, and I expect it will continue to do so in subsequent performances.