By: Michael Frayn
Directed by: Joe Harmston
Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton
Date: Thursday 4th August 2011
This production consists of a number of short plays by Michael Frayn, all loosely connected by the impact of modern technology on our lives, particularly the difficulties the technology itself causes and our inability to handle them. The set was therefore generic, with lots of flats sliding on and off and furniture trundling hither, thither and yon between each play. None of this was a problem; the set design created each location very effectively, although the actors will no doubt have their own view on all the quick changes they had to manage. With a good crowd, it all made for an enjoyable afternoon.
We missed the first couple of minutes due to heavy traffic in Brighton – we’ll take the train next time – but I don’t think we missed much. We were able to slip into aisle seats as well, so hopefully we didn’t disturb anyone. The first play was called Alarms, and when we arrived it was clear that a dinner party was being interrupted by an irritating beep. It sounded very much like the beep of a smoke alarm with a low battery – the chap behind us recognised it too – but the group having the party didn’t know what it was. While they tried all sort of options, other alarms and buzzers started going off, including the oven timer and a car alarm. The phone system in this house was apparently state-of-the art, which meant no one understood how to work it, so when an urgent call came in for the husband, he couldn’t actually speak to the person on the other end until he’d assaulted the phone out of sheer frustration.
The dialogue was marvellously tailored to the events. The caller was still trying to get the husband to pick up the phone, and saying things like ‘you can’t hide under the table’, while at the same time the visiting wife had accidentally been covered up by the dining table for reasons I won’t go into now. All of this was great fun, and although this is an extreme version of reality, much of it was recognisable in our own lives.
The second play, Doubles, was set in two adjacent hotel rooms. Two couples arrive at almost the same time, and we see their identikit lives play out. The walls are thin enough for sounds to carry, and this leads to some hilarious misunderstandings, with couple one (Serena Evans and Robert Daws) believing they’ve heard couple two (Belinda Lang and Aden Gillet) having sex when they’ve actually been trying to kill a mosquito, and couple two thinking couple one are called Kevin and Sharon, when that’s the names they’ve been using for couple two. It took a little while to set up the situation, but then we had a great time seeing all the variables of social embarrassment play out. The final situation is that both couples are staying in their rooms until they see the other couple get into their car – it could be a long wait.
After the interval came Leavings, the sequel to Alarms, with the two original couples going through the end-of-party process of leave-taking. The husband has fallen asleep, and there’s not much conversation going on amongst the rest of them. After several declarations that they must leave, the visiting couple finally get up to go, but when the husband wakes up, he assumes he’s the visitor and starts to head off himself. We then see all the last minute conversations that crop up at these times. The husbands get into a rambling, pointless conversation about things being unnaturally natural, while the wives are subsequently distracted by some gossip about an affair. This eventually draws the men in as well, and the upshot is that the visiting couple decide to make themselves something to eat as they’re so hungry.
Pig In The Middle is a short conversation between a husband and wife about the message left by a repair man about some thingy that needs fixing. The husband has a rant about the message, because he knew the man would say it was the bit inside that needs fixing when it was always the bit around the back, and the wife gets a bit fed up with being the one to pass on all these messages instead of her husband dealing with it himself. She gets her own back, though. After checking the shopping he’s brought back with him, she points out that he’s got the wrong sort of something. When he claims that they never have the right sort, she tells him he always goes to the place inside instead of going round the back! It was a lovely piece of word play, and Steve and I could both recognise our own liberal use of the word ‘thingy’, although we’re lucky enough to actually understand what we mean most of the time.
Toasters had three of the cast in office outfits, standing next to a plant on a stand and carrying a folder, a plate and a glass. While the company’s boss makes a tedious rambling speech, they have to juggle these items to keep up, opening the folders to all the mentioned pages, raising their glasses to toast some success story, and putting their stuff down when they have to applaud even more success. Or are they meant to toast? Or applaud? The uncertainty had them squirming, and kept us laughing.
Finishing Touches was another short piece, with a husband and wife sitting at a restaurant table at the end of a meal. He has a very slow delivery, with lots of very long pauses, so she finishes his sentences for him. This goes on for a short while, then he starts finishing her sentences as well – it’s the only time he can talk quickly. Their snippiness is evident, and I noticed there was at least one couple who laughed loudly all through this sketch (not us, as it happens). Clearly this situation was closer to home for some of the audience.
Look Away Now was a funny variation on the safety demonstration given at the beginning of each plane flight. The passengers were actually told not to pay attention, but one of the three on this flight was a new boy (reminded me of my first time – the only pair of eyes in a sea of papers) and he was actually watching. He did open a paper to show willing, but because he was listening, he realised the air hostess was actually taking her clothes off! The expression on his face was wonderfully funny. Unfortunately for him, he’d been spotted, and the final part of the announcement was to the effect that he wouldn’t be getting any dessert because he’d peeked.
The final play was called Immobiles, and a voiceover explained to the audience before it started that it was set in the past, at a time when people had to use landlines and public phones if they wanted to talk to one another. We’d seen Alarms And Excursions before, in 1999, and this was the scene I remembered best from the previous occasion. Dieter has arrived in Britain to visit some friends, and calls to leave a message on their answer phone. The husband also calls to leave a message – he’s at Heathrow to pick up Dieter but can’t find him. The wife, when she gets in, uses the answer phone announcement to tell them what to do, and then heads off to pick up Dieter, at Gatwick! She’s forgotten that her mother is also due to arrive, so in a short time we have four people making phone calls, leaving messages and eventually blocking each other’s calls. With so much going on, the poor answer phone blows up, and I don’t blame it. Makes me glad we have mobiles now.
I enjoyed all of these plays, although I do think they might have been better ending the show with Leavings, to top and tail the performance with the same couples. However, it’s only a minor point, and doesn’t take away from the excellent performances. All four actors are superb with this sort of comedy, and we’re glad we saw this again. According to the program notes, Michael Frayn had added some new material for this production; I don’t know which bits exactly, as it all seemed to mesh very well.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me