Farce has a proud place in British theatre history. From 14th century mystery plays, to Oscar Wilde, through to Alan Ayckbourn and Tom Stoppard, it has tickled and shocked audiences by playing with the boundaries of absurdity, driven by a speed and a vigour one seldom sees in any other genre. Likewise, the ‘play-within-a-play’ is a trope which has featured in works by our most treasured playwrights, including William Shakespeare.
If what you want is an hour of students falling over each other, go see this show. If you like comedy, don’t.
Perhaps a perfect example of when the two come together is in Michael Frayn’s hilarious 1982 piece Noises Off, a timeless exposition of a play that goes wrong – within a play. A tightly crafted tale of theatrical chaos, it elicits wild laughter from misunderstandings, bumbling tomfoolery and hysterical personalities, while remaining a powerful satire of the theatre industry. Questing Vole Productions’ All’s Well That Ends As You Like It: A Lamentable Comedie and Hysterickal Tragedie by William Shakespeare, reduces the delightful tradition established by Frayn and his kin to an hour of the least imaginative and repetitive slapstick to grace a Fringe stage. Its humour, rooted exclusively and unvaryingly in people getting hurt, is as trite as the two-dimensional non-characters that people its scenes.
We sit through the story of a megalomaniac director who has dedicated his life to staging a play he has written in Shakespeare’s style under the guise that it was the bard himself who wrote it. The production disintegrates into disaster as several actors keep hurting themselves and dying, while those who remain endlessly improvise in iambic pentameter. This cycle is then repeated ad infinitum. Though at first one thinks this may be a Blackadder-esque satire of Elizabethan customs, or maybe a much-needed mimicry of Bardolatry, the all-consuming superficiality of its repetitive comedy and the flatness of its plot negates either of these. The piece aims for the lowest common denominator: humour based on violence between characters who are mostly stock carbon copies of each other.
Noises Off, much like Fawlty Towers, works on an interplay between mismatched personalities and a carefully constructed pacing, from an anxiously precarious beginning to a catastrophic climax. Their unpredictability is also a key to their humour, taking us with twists and turns into wild situations which progress accumulatively into overall disaster. All’s Well That Ends As You Like it, in the same vein as its breathlessly long title, begins by flooring the accelerator and holding it there until the end, launching forward in an hour-long melodramatic scream of a play that never diverts from its childish tone.
Even its blocking seems to not have been thought through, as in the first few scenes the audience have to look into an obfuscated corner of the stage, while the huge space this theatre group was blessed with is hardly ever used to its potential. Frayn’s farce also uses dramatic irony and the distinction between onstage and offstage, between what is and isn’t known, to great effect; confusingly, we are meant to believe that all the events of All’s Well are occurring onstage and in front of the audience.
Efi Gauthier and Jacob Griffiths may be praised for slightly more subtle portrayals of Lady Julia and Disposable Servant respectively. Their acting induced the faint traces of a bond between the audience and their characters, the embryonic outline of actually caring about them. They had to work hard, however, against a structureless and monotonous script which gave their characters very little escape from identical phrases and actions, and no room for development or complexity. If what you want is an hour of students falling over each other, go see this show. If you like comedy, don’t.