By: N F Simpson/Michael Frayn
Directed by: Douglas Hodge
Venue: Donmar Theatre
Date: Thursday 30th August 2007
This was a combination of three plays, the first two by N F Simpson, and the third by Michael Frayn, each revelling in the absurdist style. Before the first play, a group of bowler-hatted suits brought on the furniture. The set was the wall of a room, with some shelves, a window, a door and a rectangular floor surrounded by gravel. There were net curtains at the window and flowery wallpaper on the wall. Above, the A-shape of the roof topped it all. Otherwise, the set was bare until the furniture arrived.
One of the suited gentlemen (a couple were actually ladies) was played by John Hodgkinson, one of the actors. I assume the others were stage crew. They brought on a small table with a radio on it, another small table with a telephone, a bigger table and a couple of chairs, and a wastepaper basket. Then, when everything was in order, John Hodgkinson announced “There will now be an interval.” Much laughter.
The first play, A Resounding Tinkle, was an edited version of the full text, though we didn’t know this at the time. It deals with the concerns of a couple who find the elephant they ordered has arrived while they were out, and it’s much too large this year. They wanted a smaller elephant, but as they weren’t in when it was delivered they couldn’t tell the delivery men to take it back. A neighbour has had a similar problem – her snake is too small. There’s a lot of discussion of what they’re going to do, and some repeated dialogue, which creates a lovely sense of unreality. They also have a visit from Uncle Ted, who’s moved on from an interest in motorbikes and gone for a sex change instead. Few people would have an Uncle Ted with such a perfect female body, yet they take it all in their stride. After a few refreshing lines of literature to help him perk up, Uncle Ted joins them in listening to the service on the radio – a wonderful spoof of a church service with nonsense lines and responses. Then Uncle Ted has to leave to get his train back, and they’re left with the elephant/snake problem. They agreed to swap with their neighbour, but end up with a matchbox-sized snake. The wife is also wrapping raffia round a wire-frame light shade in her spare moments.
I enjoyed this enormously. I love the absurdist way of taking normal conventions and structures, and putting in absurd content. The performances were excellent, and established recognisable character types, even if the details were well crazy.
After this part, and once the actors were clear of the stage, the back wall of the house was let down on wires, and we could see a similar back wall but decorated differently. The playlet this time was Gladly Otherwise, a short piece which dealt with the visit of an official-looking man (John Hodgkinson, still in bowler hat and suit) to check up on the couple’s knobs – door knobs, that is, plus any other knobs they might have. The husband sat in a corner reading the paper, mostly screened by the door, while the official spoke with the wife. It was over fairly quickly, and was an enjoyable snippet, with some good lines. Again, excellent performances.
For the final piece, The Crimson Hotel, the rest of the house came down, and we had a relatively bare set. The idea of this play was that a writer of French farces, knowing that taking his lover to a hotel will inevitably bring her husband to the same hotel and even to the same room, has taken his mistress-to-be to a completely deserted space – nothing around for miles – in order to seduce her. Of course, she’s perfectly willing to be seduced, but finds the great outdoors a bit disconcerting. As she’s the leading actress in his latest play, they play around with the emptiness, pretending to open doors and check in wardrobes, and find the door actually squeaks! When one of them turns the light out, they can’t see. Finally, as they settle onto the bed/rug, they glimpse a figure in the distance – her husband! After calculating they don’t have enough time for nooky and getting dressed again afterwards so they can pretend complete innocence before he gets there, they run about trying to find somewhere to hide. Eventually, they end up in the small case they brought the picnic in, while we hear the voices of the husband and his lover, another actress in the company.
This really was absurd, and excellently so. The intermingling of French farce and the absurdist style worked brilliantly together, and I loved the combination of logic and nonsense. The miming was good fun, and there was also lots of repetition, as they went through the lines of the play. Lots of echoes and layers. The performances were, yet again, excellent, and my only complaint was that it took less than two hours for the lot. Wonderful fun.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me