Saturday, 9 May 2015

Theatre review: Matchbox Theatre

Last year Michael Frayn published Matchbox Theatre, a short story collection in the form of playlets, meant to be read and imagined as they might play out; apparently it was greeted with comments that the collection would inevitably be staged for real some day. Hampstead Theatre used to have a Michael Frayn Space that his name got dropped from when it was rechristened "Downstairs," so maybe they felt they owed him something - it's in their main space, in its in-the-round configuration, that Matchbox Theatre has been turned into a sketch show, directed by Hamish McColl and with Esther Coles, Tim Downie, Mark Hadfield, Felicity Montagu, Nina Wadia and Chris Larner (also serving as composer) making up the acting troupe. After a rather self-conscious introduction, we get the opening sketch in which Hadfield and Montagu rise from below the stage as the statues on a tomb, their centuries' sleep disturbed by the trendy vicar holding a disco in the church basement.

It's an amusing enough setup, but the joke is a one-note one that's stretched out too far, and that's unfortunately a reflection of how the rest of the evening will pan out.

Frayn is of course the man behind one of the funniest plays of the last century, but if he can work wonders with the complications that slowly wind up into a farce, he doesn't show the same ability to get laughs in a punchier format. The cast is packed with comedy experience, and they approach the weak material with a conviction that often helps it along, but there's only so much they can do. (It helps if they can be heard, of course; from the Circle the acoustics of Polly Sullivan's in-the-round set aren't the best.)

There are of course a few standout sketches - Montagu as a woman in a restaurant loudly mispronouncing words, Wadia as another diner infuriated by her mistakes; Hadfield and Wadia as mathematicians taking small-talk on as if it's a complex equation. But even those playlets that do work tend to fizzle out without a punchline.

The collection of sketches ends with a satire of corporate sponsorship of the arts, a cod-Shakespearean tragedy in which the sponsors are too busy patting themselves on the back to let the play run its course. Given the venue I'm still genuinely unsure whether this constitutes admirable self-awareness, or an astonishing lack of it.

Matchbox Theatre by Michael Fray is booking until the 30th of May at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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