BACKSTAGE GAS

Unfortunately, by the third act, Frayn's comic invention begins to fray. We are again onstage, this time at a performance two months later at Stockton-on-Tees. The company and the play have disintegrated into shambles, with sardines underfoot, even tossed into the audience. Visual faux pas that allow unintended peeks into the backstage shenanigans are by now so commonplace that they lose their punch. Even the beleaguered cast can hardly care, and the audience begins to tire of laughing. Noises Off is probably half an hour too long, but even in the third act, there are a few good yuks, especially the sight gag of three climactic burglars. Certainly, Frayn has given us an enjoyable ride through the vicissitudes of backstage life without resorting to the tiresome mechanics of an Ayckbourn.

The whole cast is splendid, believable even in its grossest excesses. The ensemble's only imperfection is the tendency of a couple of actors to break up at their own ridiculousness, a forgivable and infectious flaw. I must single out the delightfully dry urbanity of Don Sparks as the long-suffering director and the inarticulate sincerity of Benjamin Livingston as "Garry, honey." Also outstanding is Diane Stilwell, reprising her role of Brooke from the Broadway production. Seemingly all legs, she is maddeningly funny in her search for the lost contact lens. Best of all is Bob Sorenson as the bumbling techie with the Buster Keaton-style deadpan reactions.

Jeff Thomson's perfect sets mock the onstage banality of the British drawing room, and provide a wonderful backstage arena for mayhem and mishap in the second act. A special bravo is reserved for David Barker, the movement specialist, for coaching this gifted cast through pratfalls, fights and pantomime with consummate aplomb.

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What's funny? Noises Off!

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