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Exuberance replaces timing in Hillbarn’s Noises Off

Louisa Sermol, Max Tachis, and Michelle Skinner in Hillbarn Theatres production of Noises Off. Photo credit: Mark and Tracy Photography.

Noises Off: Farce by Michael Frayn. Directed by Jeffrey Lo. Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 EastHillsdale Blvd., Foster City, CA. 94404.650-349-6411 or

October 11 – 28, 2018

Exuberance replaces timing in Hillbarn’s Noises Off  Rating: ★★★☆☆

Good old fashion farce requires slapstick with split-second timing to get the maximum laughter out of the pratfall.  It also requires a minimum of 4 Doors to allow quick entrances and exits. The plot should be hilarious, loaded with double entendres and/or humorous zingers. A modicum of sexual innuendo is also helpful. Michael Frayn’s 1982 award winning English farce Noises Off has all of the requirements and it has been making the rounds in professional and regional theatres ever since. Locally it appeared on the boards at San Francisco Playhouse in 2017 and Center Rep in 2010.

Hillbarn fills the criteria for the number of doors and actually has 10 doors, a French door window and a curtain into the attic. All this is on their marvelous two stories, four staircases revolving set that gives their energetic actors ample room for pratfalls.

Noises Off is about a play within a play with marginally competent actors doing a sex farce called Nothing On. Act one and three are the actual play set for Nothing On and act two is backstage where Nothing On is playing to an ageing matinee audience. (In this review the characters in the play within the play are identified in bold type.)

Lloyd Dallas (David Crane) is a pretentious second-rate director who is diddling stage manager Poppy (Brigitte Losey) understudy for the female roles and ingénue Brooke Ashton (Michelle Skinner). Dotty Otley (Louisa Sermol) is a forgetful aging actress dating jealous actor Garry Leheune (Max Tachis) who never can finish a sentence. Frederick [Freddy] Fellows (Ross Neuenfeldt) who fears violence, often gets nose bleeds and questions the meanings of his lines.  Sensible, peace maker Belinda Blair (Heather Orth)) is chasing Freddy. Over worked stage manager Tim Allgood (David Blackburn) who must understudy, fix the set and run Lloyd’s errands on top of his usual duties. Finally, elder alcoholic, hard of hearing Selsdon Mowbray is (Lawrence-Michael Arias).

The play opens with a simple scene that should be hilarious but misses the mark. Director Lloyd Dallas  (in the back row of the audience) is attempting unsuccessfully to get Doty the house keeper for a country home to answer the phone, pick up the newspaper and a plate of sardines and go back to the kitchen. She is unable to get the sequence right. Those sardines continually show up on stage in larger or lesser amounts and always get a laugh.

Producing a farce requires split second timing and much of the action is determined by the whims and skill of the director. Hillbarn director Jeffrey Lo elected to emphasize the physicality of farce at the expense of the timing and the double meaning of humorous dialog went amiss. However by act three the timing of the slapstick was in sync and the audience was in hysterics especially about plates of sardines that are an elemental part of the plot.

By the end of the show Louisa Sermol  almost had complete (read hardly had) control of the sardines making up for her encounter with the newspaper and telephone. Ross Neuenfeldt would win an Olympic medal if they gave awards for running around with your pants around your ankles.  Max Tachis must play the ineffectual sex-pot while hobbling with shoe laces tied and taking a pratfall down two flights of stairs. David Blackburn as the much put upon stage manager, understudy, repair man and gofer is perfect in his under played performance. Michelle Skinner is the perfect sexpot ingénue in revealing undergarments. Heather Orth’s unappreciated role as conciliator is more than an adequate foil for the turmoil blowing up around her. David Crane is the weakness member of the cast and never varies his dialog. Lawrence-Michael Arias as the loveable alcoholic who makes inappropriate entrances and exits in the play within a play is a joy to watch.

Scenic designer Christopher Fitzer and Master Carpenter Eric Olson have created the front and back of a multi-level set on a revolving stage that in itself is worth the visit to see Hillbarn’s problematic production of the perfect farce Noises Off. The running time two hours and 20 minutes makes it a long evening.

CAST: Lawrence-Michael Arias as Selsdon Mowbray/Burglar; David Blackburn as Timothy Allgood; David Crane as Lloyd Dallas; Brigitte Losey as Poppy Norton-Taylor; Ross Neuenfeldt as Frederick Fellows/Phillip Brent/Sheikh; Heather Orth as Belinda Blair/Flavia Brent; Louisa Sermol as Dotty Otley/Mrs. Clacket; Michelle Skinner as Brooke Ashton/Vicki; Max Tachis as Garry Lejeune/Roger.

CREATIVE CREW: Director Jeffrey Lo; Costumes Mae Heagerty-Matos; Scenic Design Christopher Fitzer; Lighting Designer Meghan Souther; Sound Designer Jonathon Covey; Properties Designer Rosie Issel; Master Carpenter Eric Olson; Stage Manager Elisabeth Reeves; Assistant Director Adrienne Walters; Master Electrician Aya Matsutomo.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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5):  Louisa  Sermol,  Max  Tachis,  and  Michelle  Skinner  in  Hillbarn  Theatres  production  of  Noises  Off.  Photo  credit:  Mark  and  Tracy  Photography.