Alarms and Excursions - More Plays Than One

Michael Frayn
Richmond Theatre, Surrey, and touring
(2011)

Alarms and Excursions - More Plays Than One

At the dawn of domestic technology when monochrome television sets had not yet given birth to remote controls the late Paul Jennings, then Sunday humorist at The Observer, invented the spoof philosophy Resistentialism (you can read about it on Wikipedia) with its explanatory slogan: ‘Things are against us.’

Oh! innocent days when the spiteful things in question were nothing worse than missing keys, watched pots (if one looks away for a moment), sticking drawers and disappearing single socks. Thirty years later (some time before SatNavs sent us in the wrong direction) Michael Frayn added technophobia to Jennings' theme with a series of playlets and revue sketches that extend the menace of ‘thingness’ to car, baby and smoke alarms, lethal corkscrews, autocues and answerphones.

He may have added press reviews to his personal list because half the Fleet Street gang found his sketches were short but outstayed their welcome, while the other half promised their readers an evening of comedy and slick playing. Given those mixed notices, the puzzle is why this period piece (Frayn’s own candid description in the programme notes) has been revived.

Public telephones, coyly dubbed ‘immobiles’ by the author, remain the theme of a laborious closing play, exhausting to watch as people on the move leave conflicting messages on an answering machine which finally blows up in disgust. Indeed at the end of the evening a baffled 25 year old turned to me, begging to know why the characters were not texting instead!

The opener is an informal dinner party for four, ruled by the oven timer and a host of other gizmos, also featuring a priceless moment as one of the guests, played by Serena Evans, accidentally finds herself under the table, lost to the world.

The second play works hard for laughs as two charmless couples occupying adjacent hotel double-rooms find themselves as mirror images of the pair next door, apparently both called Sharon and Kevin. This elaborate name joke was underlined in the 1998 production when there was a more evident class divide between the couples. But here, while the upmarket guests are played with splendid attack by Robert Daws and Belinda Lang, director Joe Harmiston seems happy to let us work out the differences for ourselves.

The remaining items are little more than sketches. Eager corporate employees at a company pep-talk struggle to cope with their canapés, champagne glasses, shoulder bags and spiral bound copies of the company report, while being invited to toast everyone but themselves — a neat piece of choreographed clowning. Aden Gillett shines in a sketch about a gravely spoken Scotsman fatally unable to complete a sentence, while his companion, sunnily played by Ms Evans, manages to find the wrong finishing touch to his every thought process.

But Frayn’s ability to paraphrase familiar words and situations in the interests of satire comes up triumphantly with a scene in which a cabin crew’s safety routine, normally ignored by passengers, is turned into an offstage striptease while the bemused Daws, the only one to watch, gets a severe reproof from the air hostess for his impudence. Incidentally, in the interests of speed, Harmiston happily has his cast of four change costumes on stage in readiness for the next scene, although of course there is no striptease.

Sheila Connor reviewed this production at Guildford

Reviewer: John Thaxter