Matchbox Theatre

Hampstead Theatre, London

© Manuel Harlan

© Manuel Harlan

Michael Frayn, a great British institution if ever there was one though I suspect he just might recoil at being called anything like an institution. In his own elegant way, Frayn has gone about his career questioning, pilloring and turning the chattering classes, the intelligentsia and middle class mores generally on their heads whilst celebrating them and theatre itself with rare, witty intelligence. Noises Off and Copenhagen I count as two of the purest forms of theatrical pleasure with perhaps the exception of Chekhov, of whom Frayn also happens to be superb translator.

So what are we to make of this light confection, a series of 22 no, 24 short sketches, taken from his recently published book of the same title and inspired by miniature theatres (given as First Night presents by Frayn to his casts over the years) housed inside matchboxes and (ad warning, available from Covent Garden’s famous toy shop, Pollocks)?

Up to about half time, pretty much delicious. There’s a sketch about two effigies discussing noises off from the crypt below, another of a wife who finishes her husband’s long-winded, rambling sentences for him, a third about the vexations of a brass musician awaiting his time in the pit, and another satirising the political euphemism of `making it absolutely clear’  when the speaker is doing precisely the opposite.

At all points, in this section, you marvel at the delight Frayn takes in the idiosyncracies of the English language and its meanings and at the vitality of his imagination that can send him spiralling off into the surreal and near parallels of everyday life, adding his own zany logic to the encounters.

Like Ayckbourn, he highlights the trivial irritations between men and women that can drive each to apoplectic non-communication. So in the second half, a husband and wife reach a point of stand-off with `thingy’ and `something’ as the battering rams of discontent.

But although the beginning and the end of the evening alike become entertaining parts and parcels of the performance – literally all the world’s a stage in the freshly configured Hampstead-in-the-round including the audience and the interval (which even gets its own in memoriam, nice touch) – Frayn’s inventiveness and ingenuity seems to run out of steam by the end. Repetitiveness sets in though, happily, not quite rigor mortis.

Hamish McColl – the other half with Sean Foley of the brilliant comic duo, The Right Size – keeps the plates spinning and works wonders as do his small team of actors of Esther Coles, Tim Downie, Mark Hadfield, Chris Larner, Felicity Montagu, Nina Wadia.

A light evening of divertissements, Frayn and the Hampstead programme allude to Matchbox’s affinities with the once popular West End tradition of revue of which Noel Coward was a past-master but which, according to Frayn, received a body blow, from Beyond the Fringe from which it never recovered.

Frayn has attempted a spot of CPR and for an hour, the body looked as though it might pull through. But it now looks as though nothing will revive Revue other than  full-scale organ transplants. We wish it well.

Matchbox Theatre is at the Hampstead Theatre, London to June 6, 2015

First published in Londongrip, May 2015