In a rehearsal room at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, things are not going well. Doors are slamming, props are ending up in the wrong place, and the cast are arguing with each other. Audiences needn’t fear, though, as this is all part of the intended chaos created by Michael Frayn’s classic backstage farce Noises Off. Glen Pearce spoke to cast members Louise Jameson, Louis Tamone, and director Daniel Buckoyd about working on this wry look backstage.
The show gives audiences the chance to watch three versions of the first act of a fictional farce, Nothing On, that’s touring the country. The first takes us inside the dress rehearsal, the second backstage at a fraught matinée performance, and the third back onstage to watch the play as it finally decorates into anarchy and chaos.
Like any good farce there are multiple doors and props to contend with and Louis Tamone, playing Garry, has found a good way of charting his way through the complex moves. “I colour code it and at the back of my script I have a map of what door Is where and I think that’s the best way to do it really.”
Fellow cast member Louise Jameson, playing Dotty, has a slightly different approach. “I’ve 11 entrances and exits in Act One alone and each time you’re carrying something different so I’ve little notes in my pockets, then they’ll be written on my hands and then hopefully I can get rid of them completely!”
One of those things Dotty seems to be constantly carrying on and offstage is countless plates of sardines. Has Jameson grown an aversion to them yet? “! I love sardines and they are terrible good for women of a certain age I’m told! Alan Ayckbourn had them in Bedroom Farce, so I think they’re possibly akin to farce!”
While the actors are busy trying to remember which door and which prop they need at any given time, director Daniel Buckroyd is facing another challenge. “One of the biggest challenges of this,” he says, “is the number of names to remember. Not because it’s a huge cast, but because the actors I am working with are playing two distinct characters and knowing what name I’m using at any given time complicates matters!”
For a piece where, by the end of Act Three most of the characters are wanting to kill each other, the Noises Off company seem remarkably at ease with each other. For Jameson that camaraderie is an important part of the process. “It’s very important that if you loathe someone onstage that you like them enormously offstage. If you fall in love with someone on stage you can always fabricate it but if you have to really despise someone you have to feel very safe in your friendship offstage.”
The characters in Noises Off are perhaps not the best actors in their field. Is it therefore a challenge for the company to play ‘bad’ actors?
For Tamone, it comes easy. “I’m a terrible actor so I fit in quite well” he laughs. “You have to heighten it as it’s difficult to deliver a line that’s meant to be bad and make it sound natural.” Jameson adds that she believes the farce genre plays a part. “It’s all about the gags and timing, so in a way a bad actress and a good actress can appear level in a way because they are following the rules.”
For director Buckroyd, the opportunity to draw out poor acting is something of a change. “It’s not often I find myself saying ‘you need to stop acting that quite so well’.”
It’s not only the characters who are perhaps not at the top of their game, the show also features a nightmare director. Does Buckroyd find a temptation to make him a more sympathetic character? “No, I love the fact that he’s a shit! There was, though, a slightly unnerving moment on the first day of rehearsal when Hywel (who is playing Lloyd) was wearing exactly the same clothes as me!”
For a play full of in-jokes about the process of staging a play, the appeal is spreads wider than just the theatrical community. Jameson thinks the success is in the humour “When I first saw it in the 70s, I can remember myself wishing they would stop because my stomach was hurting so much from laughing.” That laughter is something that Buckroyd recognises as well. “It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever directed if I’m honest, but it’s an awful lot of fun. I find myself smiling inanely at being paid to do it!”
Noises Offruns at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester from 1st – 16th May.
For more information visit www.mercurytheatre.co.uk
Rehearsal Photo: Robert Day