MATCHBOX THEATRE Hampstead, NW3

STRIKE A LIGHT! FIZZLING OR FAILING, FRAYN IS FUN

This two-hour entertainment consists of squibs and sketches, five-finger exercises and amused imaginings by Michael Frayn. Who never really meant to make a book of them, he says, let alone stage them. Do not expect COPENHAGEN or DEMOCRACY; or even NOISES OFF or DONKEY”S YEARS. But it comes from the master’s hand, all the same: and from Frayn’s mental matchbox even brief flares, flashes and fizzles light up the world for a moment.
A sense of happy frivolity pervades the theatre, not least because Hamish McColl and designer Polly Sullivan reconfigure it as a giant, circular matchbox, a blank arena with a neat rising trap in the middle; the show opens with a spoofy request to “keep your mobile phones on, your call is important to us” (Hampstead audiences are brainy enough to know it is a joke) and an earnestly pretentious disquisition on the nature of in-the-round theatre.

Indeed the best of the 24 sketches , with a sharp six-strong cast, involve knowing theatrical mockery. There’s a marvellous TV news moment outside the National Theatre as the anchor questions the breathlessly hopeful reporter about what’s going on inside. “They’re still in there, and still talking…” he says hopefully, predicting “a joint communiqué” from Hamlet and the King and downplaying a reported fracas involving Queen Gertrude and a stabbing (denied). We return from the real interval to find a pompous memorial service led by the theatre’s “spiritual consultant” , head cocked patronizingly, telling us to Give Thanks for the late Interval, celebrate rather than mourn it, and hear tributes from tearful or grateful voices popping up across the auditorium remembering how great and life-changing dear Interval was. Another meta-theatre moment has a brutal interrogator and cowed subject all too aware that they are following a hackneyed formula. And best of all, there’s a hushed David-Attenborough commentary on those mysterious, rarely seen creatures of darkness, the stagehands, scuttling busily around, fearing the return of the light as the more aggressive actors reclaim their territory.

So everyone loved the in-jokes, and why not? Other sketches follow a Fraynian theme of miscommunication and marital exasperation. A grey stone couple on an Arundel tomb are woken by the youth disco-evensong in the crypt and do some 600-year bickering; a pair in a restaurant eavesdrop and are infuriated by the stupidity of fellow-diners; a woman enrages the council by wittering on the phone (great visual curly-flex gag), Lovers attempt a Brief Encounter farewell at an airport, interrupted by increasingly contemptuous flight announcements.
A few squibs misfire; sometimes Frayn’s gentleness feels a touch too soft for our harsh satirical age, and the final sketch about theatre funding feels a bit contrived. But there are enough bright flashes of genius to make it very well worth the ticket. I am still grinning about some of them.

Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 6 June
rating three     3 Meece Rating

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