“Noises Off”: a sordid exposé of contemporary British theatre!

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Barrett Riggins is holding Jen Cody 2024
(L-R) Barrett Riggins and Jen Cody in “Noises Off” at Bucks County Playhouse. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Actually, I’m joking. Noises Off by British playwright Michael Frayn, now playing at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, is a valentine to the British sense of comedy. It is an often hilarious play about a floundering troupe of has-been and never-was actors who have come together to mount a touring production of a traditional British sex farce.

They are led by a less-than-first-rate director assisted by an overworked, frazzled stage manager and a novice assistant stage manager. Together, they turn the inane show they are rehearsing into a spiraling comedy of theatrical errors.

Noises Off follows the progress of the play, Nothing On, at three different stages. In the first act, we are at the final dress rehearsal as midnight approaches. Exasperated director Lloyd Dallas (John Patrick Hayden) watches as his woefully under-rehearsed cast — over-the-hill star Dotty Otley (Jen Cody), her actor boyfriend Garry Lejeune (Roe Hartrampf) who can’t seem to come up with a… you know, coherent unscripted thought, sexpot ingenue Brooke Ashton (Amanda Kristin Nichols), cast gossip Belinda Blair (Marilu Henner), over-sensitive and confrontation-averse Frederick Fellowes (John Bolton), and senior actor Selsdon Mowbray (Richard Kline) whose unreliable memory isn’t helped by his love of alcohol — struggle to complete the first act.

Lloyd’s overworked and underappreciated stage manager Tim Allgood (Barrett Riggins) battles unresponsive scenery and his need for sleep while fulfilling his boss’ conflicting demands. First-time assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Folami Williams), who’s having a fling with Lloyd, juggles giving cues and making notes while dealing with her own stress-induced emotional swings and what appears to be a case of food poisoning.

The second act of Noises Off unfolds one month later. This time, we watch the same first act of Nothing On, only from behind the scenes. Professional courtesy among the cast members is at a dangerously low ebb, and nobody can find Selsdon, while Lloyd sneaks about backstage, trying to see Brooke and avoid Poppy. As the play starts onstage the shenanigans backstage now have to be kept quiet, with actions as stylized as a marriage between Kabuki theatre and the Keystone Kops. Sabotaged props and costumes add to the mayhem, as does a fire ax and a cactus.

Act three brings us to the final performance of the tour. The company has fallen apart. Nothing On, never quite right from the beginning, is now a shambles, with whole scenes having to be improvised and sheer nervous exhaustion spreading among the cast members.

Director Hunter Foster, a favorite with Bucks County audiences, brings out the humor in Frayn’s play. In this he is assisted by fight director Jason Paul Tate, who I suspect is responsible for most of the outrageously funny movement in the mostly silent second act. While the entire cast makes for a fine-working ensemble, standout performances come from Jen Cody’s floundering Dotty; Richard Kline’s older actor Selsdon; Amanda Kristin Nichols’ Brooke, unable to be on stage without constantly contorting herself into supposedly sexy poses; and Barrett Riggins’ badly used and unappreciated Tim.

Roe Hartrampf, Richard Kline, Marilu Henner, Amanda Kristin Nichols, Folami Williams, and Jen Cody on stage.
(L-R) Roe Hartrampf, Richard Kline, Marilu Henner, Amanda Kristin Nichols, Folami Williams, and Jen Cody in “Noises Off” at Bucks County Playhouse. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Scenic designer Anna Louizos has come up with a revolving two-story set, showing us both the calm onstage interior of an English country cabin and the rough-hewn, practical  backstage area with stenciled signs indicating which door leads from which “room” of the house and spaces holding props or hanging costumes. Regarding those costumes, Nicole V. Moody has come up with appropriate outfits for the Nothing On characters, ranging from the underwear Brooke wears through almost all of the show to the class-stereotypical outfits for Dotty, Garry, Belinda, and Frederick.

Noises Off is designed, like most farces, to be played absolutely straight in order to garner the largest laughs. Bucks County Playhouse’s production certainly delivers, even though its first act got off to a bit of a slow start, since it had the burden of introducing the characters and their relationships with each other. Once that was out of the way, the audience was free to laugh through the absurdities lying just under the surface, in the best British tradition of farce. For a really enjoyable time in the theater, I recommend making the trip to New Hope to see Noises Off!

Noises Off is presented by the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, through June 16, 2024. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to bcptheater.org or call 215-862-2121.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.