By Lim Jing Rong (18A03A), Phang Yeu Yeou (19A01A), Caryn Chiah (19A01A)
Photos courtesy of Amy Lin (19A01B), Kathryn Oei (19A01A), Andrew Yap (19S06Q) and Tian Ruiying (19S05B) of Raffles Photographic Society
“Doors, sardines, and a lot of fun” — this absurdist marriage of words is actually the synopsis to Noises Off!, a metaphysical play-within-a-play, and a tongue-in-cheek meditation on the melodrama that spills over the stage and seeps into actors’ very lives. Put up by Raffles Players, cast members played actors in a touring troupe playing characters in a farce, Nothing On.
As the lights in the PAC dimmed on 12th May, loud chatter quickly subdued into quiet murmurs of anticipation. The red curtains parted, and a sprawling two-tier eight-door set was revealed to the audience. We were about to witness the cast and crew of Raffles Players perform Noises Off! — a comedic exercise in skill and ingenuity, and a bold defiance of gravity (or so we were told).
From the very first line, the audience knew this was not going to be a student play of the usual sombre variety. We watched the middle-aged Dotty, played by Zara Karimi (18A01A), get flustered about flubbed lines and missing plates of sardines (sardines feature very prominently in this play), and laughed as Lloyd, the on-stage director played by Jayden Yap (18S03E), grew increasingly frustrated with her inability to remember her many cues.
Throughout Act 1, we watched the cast of Nothing On struggle to get their act together the night before their first performance. As the (fictional) night progressed, characters repeatedly interrupted the dress rehearsal to talk about their problems, lose their contact lenses (then find them in their eyes), and worry about Selsdon (played by Jared Ong (18A13A)), an aged actor playing a burglar, who had a tendency to sneak off for a drink. Tim, played by Yu Ke Dong (19A13A) the stage manager and also Lloyd’s errand boy, even found the time to catch a nap (“pass out from exhaustion” might be more accurate) behind the couch.
By the end of the first act, we were all in stitches. Our over-exerted facial and abdominal muscles breathed a sigh of relief as the curtains closed for an intermission.
The varied layers of humour, from the witty puns made during Nothing On, to the comic dissonance between the characters of Nothing On and characters of Noises Off, to the easy entertainment of the many entrances and exits made us wonder: How could this play get any funnier? We did not have to wait long for an answer, because Act 2 and Act 3 showed us exactly how.
As the lights grew dim once again, the curtains opened to an unrecognisable sight. The stage had undergone a dramatic metamorphosis — the balustrade, couch and tasteful wallpaper had seemingly been replaced by roughly hewn walls propped up by wooden support beams. In reality, the set was exactly the same, save for one minor difference — it had been flipped 180º.
In the second act, the unpolished “backstage”, with notes to the cast of Nothing On scrawled on the backs of the doors, served as a stark reminder of how unprepared that cast was for their show. The first part of the act saw Poppy, the assistant stage manager played by Laura (19A13A), and Tim make repeat announcements through the PA system, failing to realise that the announcement had already been made. The play was already off to a bad start, but more hilarity ensued as the cast engaged in silent battles, struggling to keep the show going even as they fought in between entrances and exits.
One particularly memorable moment involved a fire axe sequence. Romantic rivalries turned to comical misunderstandings which escalated to absurdity rapidly, and the axe exchanged hands as cast members attempted to attack other characters with it, only for it to be snatched away by another character at the last moment. Before any unfortunate homicides could occur, the axe was decisively taken away by Belinda, played by Muskaan (18A01C), arguably the most sensible person in the cast of Nothing On. The fluid choreography, comedic timing and the dialed up melodrama of it all, landed amongst the audience with arrow-like precision and succeeded in eliciting howls of laughter from all quarters.
The whole act proceeded almost without the use of dialogue, thriving on the impeccable choreography and physical acting exemplified by the actors. Unbeknownst to the audience, this apparently smooth choreography actually belied hours of rehearsals, spontaneity, and a headache for director, production manager and stage manager Robyn Wong(18A01B). She revealed her and teacher director Mr. Jarrod Lee, had constructed a mini model of the house set, with Lego figurines to represent the characters and used this to pre-plan scenes. As Robyn put it, “It was insane, but brilliantly so.”
Robyn described the final act of the play as “by far the funniest to watch”. While all three acts had their own special brand of humour, this act drew on the audience’s understanding of the play from the previous two acts, giving us a comical scene of the play falling apart into an unsalvageable mess. From the start, Dotty could barely get her lines out as she struggled to keep sobs out of her voice. With emotions running high and cast members breaking out into petty skirmishes, it seemed impossible that they could finish the play, but the show must go on, and so it did, albeit terribly.
Countless plates of sardines ended up in unfortunate locations, such as tipped unceremoniously down the back of Belinda’s blouse. The set begin to fall apart, and cast members struggled to improvise as things went awry. In what signaled the final death rattle of Nothing On, we watched in amazement as three successive robbers, played by Tim, actual burglar Selsdon and director Lloyd, broke in through the same window. At a loss as to how to continue, they simultaneously decided the best course of action would be to creep towards the television set in sync, even though the room was filled with people.
From there, the play progressed quickly to the final line of “Lights!”, as the cast of Nothing On called for the stage to be plunged into darkness, unable to complete the play.
Nothing On may have ended in disaster, but Noises Off! was nothing short of spectacular, if audience reaction was anything to go by. When the lights flickered on and the cast of Noises Off! ran on stage once again, they were met with thunderous applause. As we filed out of our seats, we heard many audience members exclaim that this was the best student production that they had ever been to, a testament to the skill and hard work of the cast and crew.
Behind the Scenes
But the magic didn’t just happen within the wonderful chemistry of this cast. We talked to members of the sets committee, who built the magnificent two-storey set (perhaps a physical representation of the two stories going on simultaneously?). They shared about the effort that went into constructing the various doors used in the set, and the many mishaps they had to overcome to get the set to its final, polished, iteration.
Ada Lum (19S06O) and Kuang Shane Qi (19A13A) recounted a day where they had broken four drill bits in an hour, and another where they had to unscrew all their doors and redo them, because they opened in the wrong direction. They also explained that the doorknobs had been attached to the doors by duct tape, because “duct tape defies all laws of gravity”.
Another particularly memorable story involved a message painted onto the backstage side of the revolving set. Doors built from scratch are delicate objects, we were told that Zenan Han (18S06A), who played Garry Lejeune, kept pulling the doors when he was supposed to push them, almost causing the destruction of the entire door set. In a bid to prevent all their hard work going to waste, the sets teams scribbled “PUSH GARRY PUSH” on the doors. If the still-standing door is anything to go by, the reminder worked.
While the cast and crew of Nothing On were unprepared, inept and prone to emotional breakdowns, the cast and crew of Noises Off! had pulled off a spectacular comedy. Perhaps because of this success, Robyn and other Year 6s explained that they was “not too sad” that it was their final production in Raffles Players, instead expressing pride that they had brought down the house with their production.
Many also spoke fondly of the joy they had shared with the cast and crew in the weeks leading up to production. “The people are unbelievable and amazing and they floor me every single time with their dedication and generosity and time and support,” said Loh Lin (19A01D). “Long hours of rehearsal had drawn the cast and crew closer together.”
Beyond the exaggerated antics of the characters, this play allowed us, for a brief moment, to get a sense of the amount of pain, effort and dedication that goes, unseen, into a production. Sets committee member Loh Su Jean (19A01A) remarked, “I think this play is unique because you get a glimpse into what’s classified information and a true taste of what’s behind the scenes of a production.”
Indeed, Noises Off! is special for all that and more. It is noteworthy as the first comedy put on by Raffles Players in a long while. Humour is notoriously difficult to pull off, and many cast members were thrilled at the audience’s positive reaction. Muskaan and Jayden Kang both agreed that hearing people not just laugh, but break into spontaneous applause at the axe scene was very rewarding – especially since they were too busy blocking and getting the timing precisely right during rehearsal sessions to consider how funny it would be to the audience. Jayden added, “The cast definitely felt our proudest at that very moment.”
Other cast members voiced similar sentiments. When asked what he hoped audience members would take away from the play, Jayden Yap replied, “Joy. Huge amounts of laughter”. That was certainly fulfilled. He continued, “That’s what Players is about! It’s just a bunch of kids coming together to put up a show, and having the most wonderful time of their lives while doing it. Noises Off! was the perfect way to communicate that idea.”
Robyn summed it up elegantly, “I think it really illuminated how wonderful it is to bring joy – pure unadulterated laughter! – to people, even if it’s just for one night.”
“I think it really illuminated how wonderful it is to bring joy – pure unadulterated laughter! – to people, even if it’s just for one night.”
While the play may have lasted a mere few hours, the humour and joy of the night will doubtlessly stay with audience members long after the lines themselves have been forgotten.