Anyone interested in theatre will of course know the name Michael Frayn, writer of the perennial hit Noises Off but also other, more serious dramas such as Copenhagen. With Matchbox Theatre, Frayn is in (very) light vein this being a series of comic vignettes taken from his 2014 book which return the author to his sketch writing roots. Although the original conception was that these would be playlets to be performed in the reader’s brain, this production directed by Martin Jarvis takes an all-star cast and gives them voice. They are perfect for a hot afternoon (and haven’t we been having a lot of those lately?) when concentration is not at its best but some lighthearted diversion is called for. Spread across four half hour episodes the programming of the sketches seems somewhat random but certain themes – familiar to Fraynophiles – begin to emerge.
Frayn is a great wordsmith and writes dialogue that overflows with ideas and which investigates meaning. He clearly has no time for the weasel words of the political classes and in a couple of monologues from Martin Jarvis exposes the slipperiness of the phrases “if you like” and, particularly, the use of “let me be clear” when obfuscation is the intended outcome. The unreasonable fury some of us experience when overhearing repeated mispronunciations is highlighted in a sketch featuring Joanna Lumley and the specialist language employed by mathematicians is neatly skewered. Communicating via modern technology is often the bane of Frayn’s world (a subject he explored in his collection of short plays Alarms and Excursions), in particular the telephone. Thus, we hear from an over loquacious Julia McKenzie who phones the council wanting to get rid of an old sofa and ends up telling the poor person at the other end her life story. A couple of Swedish telephone operators trying to inform Nobel Laureates that they have won a prize are routinely mistaken for cold callers. Best of all is Stephen Fry’s turn as a politician bemoaning the prevalence of mobile phones only to have his speech interrupted repeatedly by said object.
Frayn is also interested in the difficulties of communication between long term couples whether they are discussing directions on a car journey or considering arrangements for dinner parties. Two sketches featuring Roger Allam, doing world weary as only he can do it, highlight this theme. In the first he is frustrated by his partner’s (Patricia Hodge) imprecision in talking about the man who, while he was out, “came round about the thing” and whether that “thing” is “inside” or “round the back”. In the second he is the knightly stone effigy on a tombstone (such as the one in Chichester Cathedral) who lies beside his wife (Lumley again) and in Frayn’s conceit is stirred to life by a Saturday night disco in the crypt. They bicker about inconsequentialities but, although hundreds of years dead, are revealed as having the same sort of concerns as the listeners.
Frayn’s biggest target is the world of the theatre itself as he takes pot shots at its various idiosyncrasies; this makes for a number of good in jokes. Hamlet is repositioned as a breaking news item and there’s a clear reference made to Pinter’s One For The Road as the actors begin to question their onstage roles. Alex Jennings nicely portrays a theatre director who cannot distinguish reality from playmaking and tries to direct the public to behave as though they are in a street scene in a musical. A real treat is to hear the David Attenboroughesque send up of the nocturnal habits of the species known as Sceneshifters; and who better to play the commentator than Attenborough himself? There are jokes about opening announcements, intervals and after show postmortems all of which have a pleasing meta-theatricality about them and reinforce the playfulness (in both senses) of the enterprise.
As will have been gathered from the above Martin Jarvis has assembled a starry and experienced cast who give the old-fashioned revue format a new lease of life and are clearly having great fun doing so. Don’t expect to gain any profound revelations from listening but if you’re in the mood for something undemanding and light then this collection should pique your interest.
Matchbox Theatre can be found on BBC Sounds. Click here
To keep up with the blog and all the latest online theatre reviews please click here and choose a follow option
For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)