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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Frayn’

Coming full circle, Michael Frayn’s clever and funny subversive farce comes back to the theatre where it started 37 years ago. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, and subsequent productions – the NT in 2000, the Old Vic in 2011 – have confirmed it’s enduring power, as does this revival.

Frayn got the idea when he saw a short farce of his from backstage and realised it was even funnier, so he wrote a farce about a farce called Nothing On touring the UK. The first act is the final rehearsal, the ‘technical’, just hours before the premiere performance in Weston-super-Mare, the second is a month later in Ashton-under-Lyne at the midweek matinee, and the third is the final night of the three month tour in Stockton-on-Tees. The same act of Nothing On is performed in each act of Noises Off, except the second act is actually backstage during the performance. Still with me? As the tour progresses, relationships between the actors and backstage staff form, break and change, becoming very dysfunctional by Stockton.

Good farce is intricate, requiring high precision, but this even more so, and the pleasure you derive from the comedy is matched by the awe you have of the actors’ skills in pulling it off. The second act in particular is masterly, as it’s effectively two plays playing simultaneously, one a kind of dumb-show in front of you ‘backstage’ and another on the stage behind seen through the set window, Act One of Nothing On in front of the Ashton audience. When I wasn’t weeping with laughter, I was agape at the sheer hutzpah of it’s execution.

The class of 2019 are a match for those that went before, with Jonathan Cullen as Jonathan Fellowes playing Philip Brent and Daniel Rigby as Garry Lejeune playing Roger Tramplemain taking the brunt of the physical demands of Frayn’s play, though the other seven actors all shine too. Max Jones’ set makes an impressively short change between the interval-less backstage second act and the front-stage third. Jeremy Herrin’s staging is as slick at being unslick as you could wish for.

Though farce has gone out of fashion, Mischief Theatre, with their ‘goes wrong’ series, have proven that there’s still an audience for it if you make it clever and skilful. Frayn did that with this 37 years ago, and it’s still the pinnacle of the form, about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on! The previous three London productions all transferred to the West End, the first running five years and the second two years, both with multiple casts. It would be a brave person who bet against this following suit; it would be a particular tonic at the present time.

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The reviews had lowered my expectations of this collection of Michael Frayn playlets and sketches, which may indeed have increased my enjoyment of them. Though it’s a mixed bag, there’s enough creativity, wit and fine performances to make an enjoyable couple of hours.

Given there are 24 of them and a playing time of 100 minutes, you can see how short they are. Some are more successful than others, but even the less successful ones aren’t long enough to outstay their welcome. I particularly liked Sleepers, the awakening of a couple on a tomb in a church, and Contraphonium, which featured a player of this seemingly fictitious brass instrument in an orchestra pit waiting an age for his few bars. There’s some fun with the form, notably an illustration of in-the-round techniques, a memorial for the interval and a lovely piece featuring stage hands changing scenes. It ends with a brilliant satire on corporate sponsorship, taking sponsor participation to its ultimate conclusion.

The theatre has been successfully re-configured again, this time properly in-the-round with five entrances, one from below, providing speedy transitions between the pieces, and there’s nifty staging by Hamish McColl. Six excellent actors – Esther Coles, Tim Downie, Mark Hadfield, Chris Larner, Felicity Montagu & Nina Wadia – play all of the roles in various combinations.

It’s an unusual form today and in that sense very welcome, and there’s just enough of Frayn’s genius and excellent execution to make it a worthwhile venture.

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The catch-up continues with this revival of Michael Frayn’s 9-year-old play (only 9?!) about Germany in the cold war and in particular the infiltration of Chancellor Willy Brandt’s office by a spy from the east and the relationship that develops between them. It’s not as dry as it sounds!

There aren’t many (any?) plays set in Germany in the cold war, so on that level it proves a fascinating insight into the time, but it’s the evolution of the relationship that is the most fascinating thing about it. Brandt and Gunter Guillaume are drawn to one another and become good friends, which gives the deceit and betrayal so much more impact.

It might sound odd, but I found the longer first half slow and less engaging, yet the story seemed rushed. The second half, as the deception is revealed, is a cracker though. Simon Daw’s design loses the first four rows of the stalls to provide more intimacy but perhaps too much extra space for director Paul Miller to consider in his staging. I was hugely impressed by an unrecognisable Aiden McArdle as Gunter and found Patrick Drury captured the man-of-the-people charisma of Willy. There isn’t a weak link in the suporting cast of eight actors (all men!).

It’s great to see something from Daniel Evans’ regional powerhouse in Sheffield finding its way to London (but why not Othello or Company?!) and it was well worth taking another look at one of Frayn’s best plays.

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