Michael Frayn’s new book is the most highbrow TV sketch show ever

A review of Matchbox Theatre: Thirty Short Entertainments, by Michael Frayn. Other loo books may sell more come Christmas but none will bring more joy than this collection of ingenious playlets

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

Matchbox Theatre: Thirty Short Entertainments Michael Frayn

Faber, pp.292, £12.99, ISBN: 9781783063468

Enough of big ideas and grand designs. Instead, here are 30 unusually small ideas from the giant pulsating brain of Michael Frayn. Matchbox Theatre is a collection of tiny playlets, all one-handers or two-handers, designed to be performed in the most intimate theatrical space of them all: your mind.

In ‘Sleepers’, Sir Geoffrye de Frodsham and Lady Hilarye lie motionless in their tomb, and bicker throughout eternity. ‘Since when has he been doing choral Evensong in the crypt?’ ‘Since 1997.’ ‘I’ve never heard any choral Evensong in the crypt.’ ‘You were asleep.’ ‘You’re telling me I slept through that?’ ‘You slept through the second world war…’

Elsewhere we hear the internal monologue of a man in an orchestra who has to play three notes on an E-flat contraphonium in 430 bars’ time. ‘An instrument no one wants to hear, not even the composer.’ In ‘Bing Bong’, one of the best, we are in an airport, where two illicit lovers are trying to sort out their future before their flights leave. But every time one of them says something of real importance, the public address system interrupts them to tell them that Flight DB 473 is now boarding at Gate 71, and neither can hear what the other is saying. This could only work on the page, but it’s very funny.

Frayn, as we know, has enjoyed a long and eminent career as novelist, playwright, screenwriter, translator and freelance philosopher. But under that distinguished carapace there still flows the lifeblood of comedy. Here he seems to be writing for the sheer pleasure of writing. He comes up with a daft idea and he runs with it, but never further than the idea merits. It’s like watching the most abstract, highbrow TV sketch show you can imagine. No one would commission such a show, and it’s possible that only Faber would consider publishing it.

Several of these squibs, though, are very performable. In ‘Master of the Mobile’, a politician gives a speech about technology. ‘Let us ensure that we never become slaves of our machines. That we remain captains of our computers. Lords of our laptops. Masters of our mobiles…’ But whose phone is ringing? His own, of course. ‘I’m sorry. Would you excuse me for one moment?’ It’s a journalist. ‘Let me just make absolutely clear here and now that the allegation is completely false. I have never even heard of this woman, and in any case she is a notorious liar, a past mistress of deceit.’ She also turns out to be a past mistress of someone called De Site, which only complicates matters further.

In Matchbox Theatre, we provide our own props and actors and set design, and if we want any ice cream, we’ll have to look in the fridge and see if there’s any there. Frayn’s preoccupations, as so often, are words and ideas. There’s an entire sketch about the way people sometimes say ‘if you like’ before a term they are not quite sure about. Another becomes a circular argument about whether we should have turned left or right at the petrol station, or whether it’s the next petrol station and whether we should turn left or right at that. Two mathematicians agree that while there are probably two of them in the room, there are certainly between 1.998 and 2.002 of them in the room.

This isn’t exactly a book for the mass market. My guess is that a few clever, light-spirited, linguistically perverse readers will fall in love with it and cherish it forever. Faber seems to understand this, for in defiance of all commercial orthodoxy they have packaged the book to look like an oversized matchbox. An oversized hardback matchbox, in fact. Other loo books may sell more come Christmas, but none will bring more joy than this.

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