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Absurdia

A triple bill of British Absurdist comedies
Donmar Warehouse
(2007)

Production photo

Actor turned director, Douglas Hodge has persuaded Michael Grandage that it would be a good idea to revive British Absurdist comedy at his theatre. The 90 minute evening that has resulted contains a resounding miss, a pleasant enough sliver and just when you begin to wonder whether anything will come of the trip, a splendid short farce that rips apart that genre to great comic effect.

A Resounding Tinkle
By N. F. Simpson

This longish piece that might owe much to Ionesco is set in a pop art, drab suburban home designed by Vicki Mortimer. This belongs to the Paradocks (think about it), Middie played by Julia Scott and Bro (Peter Capaldi who has been making a big name for himself recently starring on TV in The Thick of It).

The annual pet has turned up and rather than the usual midsized elephant, the zoo has sent along one of their biggest. This presents the tedious couple with a problem that they attempt to resolve by swapping their unnamed gift for an undersized boa constrictor. This might all seem remarkably silly -- and is, but some fun derived from a naming game that might have inspired the creators of Radio 4's I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue.

Just when this absurdity is beginning to wear thin, Uncle Ted turns up to enjoy a strange prayer meeting on the wireless. Uncle Ted is not himself, having become a cute blonde in a psychedelic mini-dress, played gleefully by Lyndsey Marshal.

The play runs its unusual course with some genuinely inventive ideas, periods of internal logic and others closer to madness. It closes with a scene reminiscent of Steve McQueen's (the video artist not the cult movie star) award-winning video installation, Homage to Buster Keaton, in which a wall collapses over the heads of the brave occupants.

Gladly Otherwise
By N. F. Simpson

This tiny piece also takes place in a suburban home occupied by a couple played by the same actors. This time, while hubby hides in a corner, his wife is assailed by an officious-looking man, John Hodgkinson complete with rolled umbrella and bowler hat.

It is unclear as to exactly who this suggestive handle fetishist might be but he happily takes over the Brandywines' home inspecting their gadgets while barely suppressing his accusatory tone throughout.

By this stage, while there are funny and thought-provoking moments in these two pieces from a writer who must surely have influenced Monty Python, it does not seem entirely surprising that the once popular N. F. Simpson has gone out of fashion.

The Crimson Hotel
By Michael Frayn

Michael Frayn has written the final piece especially to top off this evening. It is worth waiting for, thanks in part to the excellent performances from Capaldi and Miss Marshal who must like this theatre. She won a couple of award nominations on her last appearance here, alongside Zoë Wanamaker and Anna Chancellor in David Mamet's Boston Marriage.

The Crimson Hotel is a two-handed homage to the Feydeau farce, set in a desert.

In an attempt to escape their normal, farcical hotel milieu, handsome if slightly ageing playwright Pilou and pretty actress Lucienne set off for a picnic that promises secret assignation.

Knowing every stage trick in the book, Pilou leads his prospective conquest out into an absurd desert where they play out their destiny in a highly audible but invisible hotel-room set. In around half an hour, with no other actors, apart from some disembodied voices and in an empty space, the couple almost get passionate, escape a jealous husband and even contemplate the meaning of life.

As with the best of Feydeau, this is often extremely funny if you allow yourself to go with the flow. That is a credit both to Douglas Hodge's direction and impeccable comic timing of the two actors, not to mention a well-written script.

You will not find an evening like this anywhere else in London and Absurdia might be worth a visit for its novelty value and also a reminder of what proved popular in the past. However, whether Michael Frayn's half-hour comedy is enough to counterbalance too many flat moments in the pair of N. F. Simpson pieces must be open to question.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher