REVIEW: Matchbox Theatre, Hamsptead Theatre ✭✭

Last Updated on 10th May 2015

Matchbox Theatre by Michael Frayn at the Hampstead Theatre
Nina Wadia and Chris Larner in
Matchbox Theatre – An Evening of Short Entertainments. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Matchbox Theatre
Hampstead Theatre
2 May 2015
2 Stars

“Well, it didn’t even start life as a book. Every time I got ideas for short plays I wrote them and they gradually piled up over the years and my wife said: “You should think about making a book out of these”. But I didn’t think anyone would be interested. She sneakily went behind my back to my publisher – Faber – and they asked to see them. So we’d simply produce a book and see how that worked. And then Greg Ripley-Duggan read the book just before Christmas and said: ‘How about making it into a show?'”

This quote is attributed to Michael Frayn in the programme for the Hampstead Theatre’s production of Matchbox Theatre, directed by Hamish McColl, which has just begun its premiere season. Assuming it’s true, it seems the last person one can blame for theatrical version of Matchbox Theatre is Frayn himself.

A series of unconnected sketches/duologues/monologues, with the odd musical divertimento in the mix, Matchbox Theatre is said to be a “striking descendant” of the French tradition of revue. Except that, originally, anyway, the different elements of a revue were theatrically linked in some way, usually permitting a topic or theme to be explored in many different ways.

Here, however, all that links the various pieces of writings is the writer. Aside from listening to the care taken in placing words together or in enlivening absurd situations, some real, some unreal, there is nothing to suggest these pieces could or should be seen or heard together. This lack of theatrical unity is reflected in the fact that the order of appearance of sketches as they played out was different to the order in which they were listed in the programme. There is no compelling order in which to present these tit-bits of literary excellence.

There is no complaint about the writing. Frayn creates situations and conveys ideas quickly and cleverly. His knowledge of human kind and its foibles, the things which interest and aggravate, is wide-ranging, and there is little in the world that he cannot cover in a comic sheen.

As you watch his tiny gems of cleverness play out on the in-the-round stage that is being used for the production, it is hard not to resist the notion that just as much, if not more, jollity would have been derived had one been at home, in pyjamas, ready for bed, a steaming cup of hot chocolate by your side, reading Frayn’s book.

The only times that notion seems wrong is when Nina Wadia is onstage. She, alone of the six performers, has a very clear idea of the farceur, and she effortlessly creates a string of quite different characters, all of whom tick with eccentricity and tock with energy. Her handling of Table Shout, a clever skit about those irritating people at other tables in restaurants, is particularly fine. Her frustration with the mispronunciation of place names is exemplary, as is the way she takes that out on her breadsticks.

Wadia is gently eccentric in the very silly Tea For Whom?, makes an astonishing entry at one point involving an unsuspecting audience member and a tea towel, and adroitly held the audience in the palm of her hand for the close of Act One. She uses her voice well and brilliantly breathes life into everything she does.

Felicity Montagu and Chris Larner are the best of the remaining cast. Montagu does a lovely line in grumpy marble statues and is a mispronunciation guru in Table Shout, the two scenes where her light shines most brightly. Larner is especially good as a laconic Contraphonium player who laments his lot in the orchestra pit, where counting bars of music is his personal hell. Unlike Wadia, who unearths performance magic under every corner, Montagu and Larner shine when the material is obviously attractive but fare somewhat less well when the material’s attractiveness has to be revealed.

The other players never improve upon what a reader, working alone, might bring to Frayn’s words. McColl does not ensure that his cast transforms Frayn’s dialogue and characters into objects worthy of attention in a theatrical sense. The pace flags, there is not enough understanding of inherent absurdity, not enough insightful delivery. The piece does not hang together as a whole and nor do each of the matches in Frayn’s box burn as brightly as they might. Wadia can’t do all the necessary transformative theatrical work on her own.

Polly Sullivan’s design plays on the Matchbox notion but it never seems enough. Not even use of a hydraulic trap can sufficiently break the cover of indifference which shrouds the flow of Frayn’s cleverness.

Theatre needs to be theatrical, a visual and aural delight. Matchbox Theatre is a genial, gentle collection of Frayn’s musings. McColl has not made it sufficiently theatrical.

Matchbox Theatre runs until 6 June 2015

Share via
Send this to a friend

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.