Michael Frayn’s latest (and maybe his last) book, Matchbox Theatre, was a collection of 30 short sketches that revealed the workings of his creative output across the stage and the page over the past 50 years. Written over the course of his career, inbetween his many other projects, Matchbox Theatre smudged the boundaries between his dramatic works and his fiction. Were these sketches short stories or minute plays?
Hampstead Theatre clearly voted for ‘play’ in the debate and installed Hamish McColl in the director’s chair to bring the pieces to life with an ensemble of six actors, Esther Coles, (the very likable) Nina Wadia, Tim Downie, Mark Hadfield, Felicity Montagu and Chris Larner.
I am a big fan of Michael Frayn (except for the dirgey Democracy that remains the only play I’ve ever nodded off in). He is a specialist at smart comedy and witty intelligence whether for theatre or fiction. His work is frantic with ideas and dazzlingly dexterous in their execution. It’s no surprise that despite his prolific output, there are enough scraps worthy of a two-hour play.
But Matchbox Theatre does sometimes feel a little too much like those metaphorical balls of paper strewn around the wastepaper basket. The pace waxes and wanes and inevitably some of the sketches work better than others. And when Matchbox Theatre catches fire it only every really smoulders with a dimmed Frayn brilliance.
I enjoyed the David Attenborough-style look at the stage hands that saw black-clad figures scurrying around a set moving props with exaggerated movements, communicating in high pitched squeaks. There was the clever Outside Story, where Hamlet is reimagined as a national news event (“there were rumours earlier that someone had seen a ghost!”). And there’s a lot of enjoyable theatre meta as Frayn breaks down the relationship between the audience and the actors, reality and the theatrical. Just before the interval we find Tim Downie and Nina Wadia in the audience (the characters don’t have names) riffing off the audiences’ interval regimes – and it’s very funny.
When the sketches don’t quite work, there’s no hiding in the exposed round with the audience as a seventh character, the actors occasionally addressing the front row and the stalls remaining partially lit. But this intimacy falls a little flat in a theatre as soulless as Hampstead where the audience always seem a little annoyed at having to be there.
Frayn likes to stretch farce and the unlikely to breaking point, his brilliant countryside set novel Headlong is a fine example of his expertise in dicing with the ridiculous with skill, but in some of these sketches don’t know when to stop. There’s a piece about a b flat french horn player whiling away his long moments of nothingness in the orchestra pit that falls as flat as flat as a b flat. Then there was the politician ranting about technology only to be called by his wife and a tabloid reporter asking him about an affair that felt a little dated and neither dark or funny enough to work.
While the characters were different in every sketch, the characteristics of each actor follow them through each piece. The cast play their parts with verve and a knowing nod to the theatrical, this is no po-faced drama, we are all in this together so bring your sense of humour – especially if you find yourself on the front row.