From the opening pre-recorded, pre-show announcement, requesting that the audience members ‘turn on’ their mobile phones, Michael Frayn’s ‘Matchbox Theatre’ is intent on drawing our attention to the form and conventions of theatre, and of being a viewer. Esther Coles talks of breaking down the fourth wall in the introductory scene, while the break for the interval has two of the actors sitting in the audience, spot-lit, watching and discussing a play, followed by the start of the second part commencing with a ‘Memorial’ for the time we’ve just spent away from the stage, at the bar or ice cream stall. The work is made up of 23 short plays, originally published as a book, now staged in the round, with a cast of 6 who take up multiple different roles throughout the night.
In the interview with Frayn available in the programme, he sets the example of Samuel Beckett’s short plays as a ‘serious’ (in mood) alternative to the kind of comic short theatre he is aiming at here. In addition the plays are peopled by actors including Nina Wadia (‘Goodness Gracious Me’) and Felicity Montagu (the marvellous Lynn in ‘I’m Alan Partridge’) who, though having a range of different types of roles in their CVs, are most known to the viewer as TV comedy stars. The fast paced-nature of some of the scenes, plus the swift character, costume and setting changes, makes you compare the action not to a theatrical experience, but rather a sketch show on the box, and unfortunately the work suffers greatly because of this.
What we get is a number of over-done, banal set-pieces and stereotypes: technological modernity and its perils (a couple talking to each other on mobiles while in the same supermarket, another in an airport having the Tannoy system intrude on their goodbyes), the self-congratulation and nepotism of mainstream awards ceremonies, the chaos which ensues when a popular song is literally applied to real life (‘Tea for Two’ in this case), an orchestra musician lamenting his fate of having only a couple of notes to play each night. There’s an unthreatening, good-natured geniality to the action, admittedly, but what is missing is the, piercing, acute eye which Frayn has thrown on, say, Fleet Street in his novel ‘Towards the End of the Morning’ – creating something new out of the madness he sees around, comforting the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable (to paraphrase Mencken’s famous definition of satire). We’ve seen all these scenes before, many times, and the laughs just refuse to come: by the second half it felt like a longer evening than it was, with even those audience members who did initially respond to the supposed hilarity struggling to raise a weary chuckle. These looked like five-finger exercises, played lazily.
Perhaps the author felt trapped by the form? But there are any number of TV sketch shows that have done this sort of thing far better, with a true absurdist, surrealist delight, depicting quirky but recognisable individuals instead of clichés (Matthews and Linehan’s ‘Big Train’ being a particular joy). Harold Pinter, who along with the previously cited Beckett had no shortage of dark humour in his ‘serious’ work, once famously referred to his theatre as being about ‘the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’ (though he later disowned the comparison). This was a phrase which kept coming to me while watching ‘Matchbox Theatre’: we were missing any bite.