Simon Ward reviews Alarms and Excursions at Greenwich Theatre
During rehearsals for this production of Michael Frayn’s collection of short plays and sketches, the playwright apparently wrote to the director to query whether the various technological devices which conspire to confound and torment his characters were now too outdated for modern audiences to either understand or relate to. Luckily his fears were unfounded, as the situations prove timelessly hilarious, and audiences will, I have no doubt, be readily able to map across to the similar issues arising in our own, still more technologically-dependent times.
Nevertheless, it is true that the pieces do have a certain period feel to them – there is a large backdrop screen of a distinctly seventies style – and some of the sets could have come from a well-loved episode of Morecambe and Wise. But the sharpness and wit of Frayn’s script soon dispel the sense of anything too cosy or sitcom-like.
The show consists of eight plays in total, with different characters and settings, but loosely connected by a number of themes. Our reliance on technology, and indeed, our determination that new technology makes things better, even when it is manifestly failing us, is wryly satirised. There is a battle of the sexes, the element which is perhaps most dated. The men tend to be more interested in the tech, the women in relationships; the men don’t listen, even when the women have the right answer; the men stubbornly persist whereas the women are more pragmatic in seeking solutions. It’s amusingly done, but we have seen it before. The piece is also interested in the embarrassments and absurdities of class, and social convention – showing how the desire not to do the wrong thing can too easily lead to ridiculous and disastrous consequences.
Frayn is of course one of the great modern farceurs and the opening piece, Alarms, is a superbly managed example, (director James Haddrell) complete with opening and shutting doors, misunderstandings and mishaps which build to a hilarious climax. The setup is that four friends, two couples, have met for dinner. Trouble is already brewing when the host insists on trying to use his new gadget rather than the traditional corkscrew. He is adamant that it will be better, though later has to admit that it could take your finger off, if not used properly. Hence, a delay to the wine opening and essential social lubrication. Which makes the mysterious chirruping noise that can’t be located all the more awkward and annoying…
There are a few slightly clunky scene changes as the set needs to be rearranged between pieces, so the screen comes down and shorter two- or three-hander sketches are played in front. But again, the sparkle of Frayn’s script makes up for it. Alongside the humour, there is also time for some philosophical musings, for example, in Doubles where two couples occupy adjoining hotel rooms and are somehow trapped into mirroring each other despite themselves, and they consider the hundreds and thousands of couples who have been there before them.
There is much to enjoy here, and the nature of the piece as a series of shorter plays means that nothing outstays its welcome. And while each piece largely stands alone, it’s also fun to spot the call backs to the earlier episodes, as with Leavers when we return to the dinner party, now at the end of the evening, but with a few reminders of the earlier mayhem. And the final piece, Immobiles, brings the whole thing to a superbly choreographed and spectacular end.
This is very funny throughout, and frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, with much incidental pleasure between the gags. The acting demands of playing farce are well known and the four-strong cast – Lauren Drennan, Shereener Browne, Dan Glaisford and David Hubball – rise to the challenge well. Lauren Drennan, in particular, impressed in the way she fully inhabited her frequently put-upon and long-suffering characters.
Alarms and Excursions is running at Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill, London SE10 8ES until 26th March