Londonist Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Though written by lauded playwright Michael Frayn, Matchbox Theatre is a series of short playlets that has more in common with by-numbers TV and radio sketch shows than his best known works.
Frayn’s back-catalogue is of such quality that he regularly leaves the audience buoyant from his sheer creative energy. It’s entirely normal in fact to have your abdominal wall left in searing pain induced by the laughter brought on by works such as Noises Off or Clockwise. Or you might have your intellect aroused by the physics, philosophy or politics that feature in plays like Copenhagen and Democracy, or his novel Spies.
This new and strangely unremarkable show on the other hand, leaves mostly a feeling of disappointment. In Frayn’s wide-ranging oeuvre it compares best to Speak After The Beep… A collection of writings based on his Guardian column that humorously navigated the petty annoyances of everyday life though stayed within a safe middle ground and avoided pushing any envelopes.
Not that there isn’t the odd glimpse of his genius here. Frayn is one of Chekhov’s best translators and the thematic links between the two writers, especially via the themes of social entrapment and miscommunication, loom large in these rapid-fire mini-plays. There’s occasionally a touch of Nikolai Gogol’s absurdity too, which also laced the work of Chekhov’s early period.
Sleepers is about two medieval corpses reflecting on the centuries that have passed by as well as the disco going on in the crypt of the church where they lie. Contraphonium has a musician similarly powerless as the orchestra around him gets all the glory while he waits and waits for his bit. Others plays are a credit to the staging, such as Table Shout, which allows the stage, converted to be in-the-round for this show, to come into its own with a revolving restaurant effect.
It has been superbly cast and all six actors turn in fine comedic performances. Unfortunately these playlets really should have had a merciless script editor taking them apart, cutting to the centre of each scene to seize the comedic essence, rather than letting them linger until they humour becomes wearing.
Had these sketches been framed as works in development, Matchbox Theatre would make an interesting curio. As they are being offered up as the finished product though, the show never approaches the high levels we’ve come to expect from Frayn.
Matchbox Theatre runs at the Hampstead Theatre until 6 June. Tickets £10-35. Londonist saw this on a complimentary ticket.