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

Advertisements

Book Review: Skios by Michael Frayn

Skios by Michael Frayn

My first introduction to Michael Frayn was his 2002 novel Spies which I picked up in a book exchange in a guesthouse in Cambodia a few years ago.

This Second World War based drama was one of those mesmerising novels that you long to linger over and savour every word, but whose pull is such that you gallop through it only to be left bereft as you reach the final page all too soon. It’s been years since I read it in the suffocating humidity of a pre-monsoon season Cambodia, but I still think about the book and the feeling of reading it almost as often as my mind drifts to those lazy days in South East Asia.

Naturally I sought out other Frayn works. His Booker Prize shortlisted Headlong was a brilliant, snortingly funny countryside farce-thriller; The Scoop-like Towards The End Of The Morning a comedy set in the smoke-tinged, boozy world of a corner office of a Fleet Street newspaper during it’s dying days. And on stage, the majestic Noises Off (I also saw Democracy last year and, lets just say I’m a political philistine who prefers my Frayn funny or moving).

In his latest novel Skios, Frayn is firmly back in farce territory. In fact, this is farce so farcical it makes Noises Off look like, well, Democracy. Silly yet clever, hugely improbable yet completely believable, Skios follows Oliver Fox, a daft fella who arrives on the Greek island of Skios without the woman he is meant to be sharing a villa with (a villa, incidentally that belongs to his on-off again girlfriend’s friends) who he only met for five minutes in a bar while her boyfriend was out having a fag.

Friendless, address-less and lift-less, Oliver spots a woman at Arrivals holding a sign reading ‘Dr Norman Wildfred’ and decides to give this man’s life a whirl. The woman holding the sign is Nikki, the PA to the director of the Fred Toppler Foundation – essentially an academic holiday camp – who is at the airport to collect the organisation’s guest lecturer. The real Dr Norman Wildfred meanwhile is left to navigate Oliver’s chaotic life, which happily for the balding, overweight academic features lots of attractive young ladies. What follows is a catalogue of perfectly pitched and expertly plotted events that will either have you chuckling like a loon or groaning wearily at the whole silly mess.

Like the two taxi driving brothers who play pivotal roles in this comedy of errors, the pacy plot threatens to overturn on a few particularly sharp turns, but Frayn’s great skill is taking the ridiculous to a precipice only for him to steer this juggernaut of absurdity clear of a plot-cliff. Frayn is very much in charge of this story even if it feels that all these incredulous coincidences, unlikely connections and improbable timings are spinning out of his control.

Your enjoyment of Skios very much hinges on you not taking the characters too seriously. They are almost cartoon-like in their stupidity, vanity, arrogance and willingness to accept everything the way they want to see it. They don’t seem to be possessed of instinct or, for the most part, brains. In fact, they’re lumbered with very few characteristics, they are faint human sketches on which to hang a fun, farcical story on. And they wear it well.

by Suzanne Elliott