Most of the new plays around right now are serious. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this. These serious plays are often very good plays; but there should always be a bit of space for light-hearted fun. It’s just a shame that when this light-hearted fun is staged; it often fails to hit the mark, being neither funny nor pertinent.
Michael Frayn’s Matchbox Theatre currently on at the Hampstead Theatre is billed as a selection of short plays. In reality it’s a parade of wryly self-contented musings more likely to induce a knowing chuckle than an involuntary guffaw. The content’s Hampstead-centric, mainly consisting of 50+ couples, or figures from middle-aged life, in droll, or faintly bizarre circumstances: marble effigies of a knight and his lady are brought to life by loud music in the Church hall; an hysteric wife rails against a neighbouring table’s malapropisms; a couple conducting an illicit affair suffer a communication breakdown because of an interrupting airport tannoy.
It’s twee, knowing, and, dare I say, smug. It feels like the kind of thing your schoolteachers would perform at the end of year as they cling on to their vainglorious dreams of the stage. Many of the shorts are half-baked, or end impotently. This all makes sense when you know that Frayn didn’t approach his publisher with the plays; it was his wife.
That’s not to say of course that some sketches do hit the mark. One sinister piece between an interrogator and a suspect, for example, is darkly hilarious; and a News link-up with the National Theatre commentating on Hamlet; although rather cliquish, is undeniably amusing. Also the production benefits from some great acting talent. Comedic talent Felicity Montagu, known to many as Lynn from Alan Partridge, wrings every single drop of humour out of Frayn’s scripts; and Tim Downie, who some may know from Channel 4’s cult hit Toast of London also makes the most out of some dud parts.
But apart from the acting talent, both the staging and the script are weak. Performing in the round is a questionable move – I’m not sure what it brings, apart from making the actors’ lives more difficult. And apart from that bold and questionable move, there are no flashes of brilliance in the way the sketches have been produced. For the Hampstead Theatre’s audience the evening may prove an amusing diversion, but most will be dismayed to find the matchbox full of damp squibs.
Matchbox Theatre at Hampstead Theatre until Saturday 30th May. For more information and tickets visit the website.