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A CurtainUp London London Review
Matchbox Theatre

"Sir Geoffrye and Lady Hilarye, sleeping peacefully on their marble tomb these last six hundred years, are woken by the thump of rock music in the crypt beneath them." — from Sleepers
Matchbox Theatre
Felicity Montague as Lady Hilarye (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Michael Frayn's tells us that each time he had an idea for a playlet he jots it down and that his wife "sneakily went behind his back to his publisher" to get them published. These short sketches were imaginatively published by Faber in the form of a book pulling out of a matchbox. The matchbox idea derives from toy theatres in miniature in a matchbox sized box, which Frayn used to give to people coming to his first nights as his guests.

With a hardworking cast of six, and when there are 23 plays you can see how hard the cast have to work; there is a large variety of themes. The opening play Sleepers is a real delight with an entombed medieval knight and his fair lady waking from their sleep on top of their tomb to the sound of rock music from the crypt. They bicker and argue. "It's not a disco, it's choral evensong!" Sir Geoffrye and Lady Hilarye (Mark Hadfield splendid in chain mail and Felicity Montague)) have stone coloured clothing and the dust comes off them as they rise from their tomb to demonstrate a slow and stately medieval dance.

Frayn's humour in Matchbox Theatre is mostly word driven whereas his director Hamish McColl is most at ease with farce with its elements of physical romp. A sketch sees a couple where his interminable slowness of conversation with hanging words results in his wife always finishing his sentences. Nina Wadia charmingly finishes Tim Downie's tedious thoughts. A patient turns the tables on his doctor by diagnosing his doctor's ills.

I found myself wanting to imitate one sketch Table Shout while sitting in a coffee bar in Greenwich when close by, a couple were discussing the hole on Blackheath Hill and getting the date of the illegal chalk mining wrong by 150 years, when the hole was probably caused by broken water pipes not illegal mining. In the sketch Nina is infuriated by the mispronunciation of places by a woman at another table. "Marakash" says the woman, "Marakesh" hisses Nina getting more and more frustrated.

There were other sketches which amused me less and seemed to go on for a long time. The award ceremony where people got the award named after them was silly. There is a homage to the passing of the interval and news reporting on the peace talks in Elsinore regarding Hamlet. I liked the Brief Encounter replay but at an airport instead of the steam railway station and interruptions by airport announcers.

Hampstead Theatre has been reconfigured in the round but we seem rather far away from the action. Some of the scene changes which involve the centre trap door lift are noisy, wobbly and clunky, maybe through lack of use.

The last two sketches are crowd pleasers. A behind the scenes look at the scene shifters Blackout Number is narrated by a David Attenborough type nature documentary whispered voice, "These shy creatures who work under the cover of darkness". Finally Mark Hadfield as a theatrical knight intones about the funding issues for the arts.

This isn't Frayn's best play but a light amusement. Actually he has subtitled it An Evening Of Short Entertainments. I wonder whether they work better on the page when you have time to relish the words or skip the repetitions rather than in the 1960s revue mode? Go and see Noises Off for Michael Frayn on top comic form. And don't let your wife take your work to the publisher!

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Matchbox Theatre
Written by Michael Frayn
Directed by Hamish McColl

With: Esther Coles, Tim Downie, Mark Hadfield, Chris Larner, Felicity Montague, Nina Wadia
Designer: Polly Sullivan
Composer: Chris Larner
Lighting: David Howe
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: Two hour 15 minutes with an interval
Box Office 020 7722 9301
Booking to 6th June 2015
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th May 2015 performance at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 (Tube: Swiss Cottage)
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