Theatre Review: Matchbox Theatre, An Evening of Short Entertainments, Hampstead Theatre

Michael Frayn's Matchbox Theatre at Hampstead Theatre

Michael Frayn’s Matchbox Theatre at Hampstead Theatre

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.

Matchbox Theatre | Hampstead Theatre | Until 6 June

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Theatre Review: Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, The Duke of York Theatre

Stephen Mangan as Wooster and Matthew Macfadyen as Jeeves in Perfect Nonsense

Stephen Mangan as Wooster and Matthew Macfadyen as Jeeves in Perfect Nonsense

Wot oh, pip-pip and all that. An evening with Jeeves and Wooster isn’t going to be Ibsen, although the Norwegian playwright does get a name check in Perfect Nonsense, the West End adaptation of P.G Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters. What you do get instead of chin-stroking meaning-of-life musings is an evening of theatrical frivolity with lots of high jinks, jolly japes, some super-charged acting and plenty of hearty chuckles.

Stephen Mangan (Wooster) and Matthew Macfadyen (Jeeves) are nearing the end of their six month (six month!) West End run and only have a few weeks left before they hand the cow-shaped creamer (more on that later) over to Robert Webb and Mark Heap on 7 April.

Their enthusiasm, or at least their enthusiasm for pretending to be enthusiastic, hasn’t dipped which is no mean feat as this is a whirlwind of a production. The Goodale Brother’s script nimbly works in many of Wodehouse’s cunningly complex tongue-twisting dialogue while Sean Foley’s direction sets a relentless pace; the script requires as much verbal gymnastics as the physical demands involve bodily acrobatics.

Like Wodehouse’s novels, all the best farces and blondes (I can say that, I am – *ahem* – one) Perfect Nonsense is far cleverer than its silliness implies with a lot of gentle poking fun at the expense of theatre, exposing the absurdity and artifice of stage. The conceit is that Jeeves is performing a one-man-show dramatising his recent high-jinks with a cow-shaped creamer that takes him from a Chelsea antique’s dealer to Totleigh Towers, the home of the bombastic Sir Watkyn Bassett.

Perfect Nonsense opens on a bare stage where Wooster is enthusiastically breaking down the fourth wall and filling the audience in on the story behind his theatrical debut.  Bertie’s attempt to re-tell his adventures single-handedly soon runs into trouble, but, as ever, Jeeves has solved the problem before Bertie even knows he had one, gamely agreeing to play several of the characters himself and roping in Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia’s butler Seppings (Mark Hatfield) to act the rest, a role that means impersonating everyone from an imposing dictator to Bertie’s even more imposing aunt.

There are plenty of Wodehouse’s fine words in the Goodale Brothers’ adaption to ensure a buoyant script, but the actors are still required to walk a fine line between a play that could be toe-curlingly daft or wonderfully silly. Fortunately, Mangan, Macfadyen and Hadfield all inhabit their many roles on the right side of the farce fence. Matthew Macfadyen, an actor I have previously found as a charming as a wet sock was never going to win me over as that pompous old stick Jeeves. But he revealed the great actor I never realised he was with his fantastic performances as ‘Jeeves’. The part when he’s simultaneously both Sir Watkyn Bassett and his niece Stiffy Byng is as fine a piece of comic acting as I’ve seen this side of the Old Vic’s 2011 Noises Off.

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense is a deftly daft, big brained comedy that will leave you feeling pretty tickety boo, old chap.

For tickets and more information on Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense at the Duke of York visit www.jeevesandwoostertheplay.com

by Suzanne Elliott