Michael Frayn is renowned for writing some of the greatest comedies in the country. Indeed, his classic farce, Noises Off, was recently voted the country’s second favourite play of all time, beating all of Shakespeare’s and coming second only to Bennett’s History Boys. In Audience, the concept of watching a play is turned completely on its head, as viewers instead sit on the stage, whilst the cast takes the parts of the “audience”. It’s a very bizarre experience, having the eyes of the “audience” constantly trained on you, but it is a show executed exceptionally well.
The plot (if it can be regarded as such) documents the first act of the opening night of Keith’s (played by Harry Whittaker) new show, where the audience that comes to watch it portray almost any stereotype you can imagine — from people falling asleep in the back row, to awkward encounters with strangers, arriving late, forced politeness and more — much to the writers’ dissatisfaction. Yet, despite a relatively thin story, it is clear that this is not the point the play, as the show is pulled off with beautiful delivery and near-perfect comic timing at every turn.
The choice to set Audience in the Barn — in every sense of the word — pays off dividends. It would be all too easy to try and paint a picture of a much more elaborate venue, but various references to the Barn throughout, and even having the Usherette (played by Maya Ellis) summon the “audience” in the same way as would be heard by the (actual) audience at the beginning of any other show, really pays off in making you feel like you’re not watching actors but audience members.
The acting was of a very high standard throughout; an impressive achievement, considering there were many occasions of long silences for particular characters, during which character was barely broken at all. Sam Hill, playing a very convincing camp drama teacher, had the audience in hysterics from the moment he first entered the stage, whilst Harry Whittaker gave an effortless portrayal of Keith and the embittered frustration of a man seeing his work badly received right before his eyes.
It is notoriously difficult to perform a comedy well and to do it justice. An average Shakespeare production may simply leave the audience feeling like they’ve watched better, but a poorly done farce can fall flat on its face very quickly. Audience does absolutely nothing of the sort. From the very beginning to the very end, we were kept laughing almost non-stop. It was not perfect: the costumes felt a little too “thrown together” last minute; more use could have been made of make-up to make the old characters actually look “old”; and the odd line fell flat here and there. But if you are even considering coming along to watch this show, please do. It will not be a decision you regret.