The Phnom Penh Players’ latest production, Noises Off, opens on the stage of an apparently innocuous, if shambolic, small-town England amateur dramatics production. It seems straightforward enough.
But barely has the audience had time to get comfortable when the ‘director’ pipes up from the front row of the house and actors start stepping out of role to complain about the props.
Opening tonight at the Hotel Inter-Continental and running until Saturday, Noises Off, it seems, is a play about putting on a play. And thus begins an hour and a half of total disorientation for audience and, apparently, cast alike.
The play that’s being rehearsed is confusing enough in itself. But as these archetypal British theater luvvies gradually bring their own relationships and hang ups into the play, it becomes clear that a whole lot more is going on than at first met the eye.
The Players maintain the pace so well through the first act that by the interval the audience is exhausted. When we return, we’re ushered back in through another door.
By the time we realize that the second act is a behind-the-scenes rerun of the first, it’s too late. You hardly know whether that door was meant to open, which cast is which, and which mistakes were meant to be made. “It’s a battlefield back there” someone cries at one point. Quite literally when a behind-the-scenes ax chase ensues.
By Act 3 you can hardly believe more is possible, but it is, and the confusion reaches a climax.
All the elements of farce in the best British tradition are here: love triangles, false starts, slamming doors, missing props, sardines…even the Players’ very own John Cleese in the shape of the garrulous Gary/Roger, played by Rob Williams.
And perhaps more than any play I’ve seen, this one really is all in the timing. The Players manage somehow to hold it all together—is it by the skin of their teeth, or does it just feel that way?—as they gallop their way through scratchy sound effects and a shuddering set which, like most of the characters, seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse.
Noises Off is frantic, frustrating and chaotic. It turns your perception on its head and then back up the other way again.
The director Peter Buckley has pledged to “eat the set, or at least the script” if you don’t find it hilarious. My guess is that you will.