Theatre review: Lights up, noises off, knickers down

If life is grinding along with mid-winter monotony, help yourself to a couple hours of utter chaos at Sagebrush Theatre.

Everything is off the rails in Noises Off, a thoroughly English spoof about what goes on - and off - behind the scenes in the illusory world of theatre.

As Michael Frayn's critically acclaimed comedy opens, you sense the period of its writing three decades ago. It's a little like stepping onto the set of Fawtly Towers. Two minutes with the discombobulated Dotty Otley (Janet Michael) and you begin to realize that none of this matters, none of it makes any sense at all.

The booming voice of director Lloyd Dallas (Thom Marriott) snaps you back to the parallel narrative, to the play within the play. Lines are flubbed, props misplaced and tempers flare. Welcome to rehearsal for Nothing On.

As much as audiences appreciate dramatic excellence, you have to admit there is a shameful pleasure in watching a train wreck. Why do we like to watch screw-ups? There's no mystery - they comically contradict the polite pretense of theatre. Like farce, they violate the sacred space.

In the first act, the rehearsal, the players are tearing out their hair in frustration, stumbling toward a curtain call hours away. In the second, the full set rotates, taking the audience backstage as pandemonium erupts on stage, which is now backstage.

This isn't an inside joke. You don't need to have worked in theatre to appreciate the humour, though memories of amateur stagecraft come flooding back. (I remember when a stagehand laughed so hard he let go of the rope while hoisting a scenic backdrop. Montmartre came crashing down. We could have killed an actor, though it seemed at the time more likely that the director would kill us.)

The saving grace - at least for those not fond of farce - is that Noises Off is farce and parody at the same time, a send-up of one of the oldest forms of theatre.

Nothing On lives up to its name. In keeping with the English farce tradition of all show and no go, there is no nudity or sex, and there really is nothing on of interest in this ghastly production. However fun the play is to watch, it must have greatly amused the playwright, coming up with everything imaginable that could go wrong on stage.

As Nothing On's director (now there's a recipe for chaos; one production, two directors) exclaims: "It's all about doors and sardines, getting on and off, getting the sardines on and off. That's farce. That's the theatre. That's life."

Laughter aside, it's a bit puzzling that artistic director (and show director) Cloran would program a large cast in the midst of a lean season, when he's appealing for Aeroplan miles to support the next production. It's not as though provincial funding cuts hit the company last week.

Is Noises Off worth it? I felt the show dragged at times, that it ran a half-hour too long. Thursday's opening night audience didn't seem to agree. They gave the cast a standing ovation as - no, I won't give away the perfect ending - the curtain fell. That moment alone was worth the price of admission.

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