Absurdia, a triple bill celebration of British absurdist plays, opened on Tuesday 31 July 2007 (previews from 26 July) at the Donmar Warehouse, where its limited season continues until 8 September (See 1st Night Photos, 1 Aug 2007).
NF Simpson’s short one-act plays A Resounding Tinkle and Gladly Otherwise are paired with the world premiere of Michael Frayn’s The Crimson Hotel. Actor turned associate director at the Donmar Douglas Hodge directs a cast comprising Peter Capaldi, Lyndsey Marshal, John Hodginkson and Judith Scott. The plays are designed by Vicki Mortimer, with lighting by Paule Constable, sound by Carolyn Downing, movement by Carolina Valdes, and music co-composed by Stu Barker and Douglas Hodge.
Most first night critics agreed that Absurdia provides some sound if not quite “belly aching” laughter with some weaker material to plough through before you reach moments “of gold”. Opinions as to which of the three pieces on the bill is best were divided, though some were fervently in the Frayn corner, while even some of those who weren’t credited Lyndsey Marshal’s bosom “shimmer” in Frayn’s playlet as a comic highlight of the evening.
Heather Neill on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Michael Frayn’s brilliant contribution is more sophisticated, in the tradition of Pirandello rather than Spike Milligan. An adulterous couple lost in the desert are simultaneously in a French hotel and in a theatre, acknowledging the presence of the audience. The spirit of Feydeau hovers over proceedings, but the result is a more complicated existential exploration than any French farce provides. Peter Capaldi and Lyndsey Marshal come into their own in a dazzling display of mime and comic timing as non-existent doors slam, imaginary furniture is skirted and invisible curtains swish. Carolyn Downing’s sound, Paule Constable’s lighting design, Scott Penrose’s special effects and an exemplary stage management team underpin this beautifully controlled mayhem. Theatrical chaos takes meticulous planning … The other two actors, Judith Scott and John Hodgkinson, provide excellent support as unseen voices here and in the flesh elsewhere, while Vicki Mortimer’s set ingeniously transforms locations in a suitably surreal manner … The whole evening is a joy for anyone willing to leave the logic of everyday common sense at home.”
Rhoda Koenig in the Independent (two stars) – “With life getting more absurd all the time, the theatre of the absurd ain't what it used to be. But was it ever? In Douglas Hodge's production of two NF Simpson one-acters, and a new play by Michael Frayn, the style seems less comical than historical … There are two good sight-gags, and Frayn (mildly) engages us by enlisting our imagination to create the creaking doors and the invisible second couple. But, laborious in its humour and plodding in its pace, this Feydeau take-off never achieves lift-off, and Lyndsey Marshal (not helped by an ugly dress and hair ornament) is frantic without being feminine … The comedy needs to be higher or lower; as it is, laughter echoes faintly at the back of the throat, never reaching the belly or the brain.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times (three stars) - “Both Simpson pieces are defiantly short on substance, sketches stretched to breaking point and in danger of snapping, like knicker elastic, and falling to the floor … Speaking of knickers, adulterous hanky-panky preoccupies the actress Lucienne and the playwright Pilou in Frayn’s play, as they trek into the desert in search of solitude. Frayn constructs multiple illusory realities from words and gestures: the stage becomes first a Beckettian hinterland, then the titular love-nest hotel conjured from the air by Pilou, then the world of Pilou’s own farce. It’s dizzyingly clever, and intermittently funny – especially when Marshal’s Lucienne, attempting to hide from her approaching husband and his lover, exhorts Capaldi’s Pilou: ‘Shimmer – they’ll think we’re a mirage’, and does so, décolletage aquiver. In the end, though, it’s like watching an intricate clockwork toy perform tricks: you marvel at the ingenuity of the mechanism, but little more.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “The link between Simpson and Frayn is rivetingly established in the latter's The Crimson Hotel: a fiendishly clever piece about a Feydeau-like dramatist and his female star who come to a desert place for a spot of nooky, only to find themselves tormented by all the habitual obstacles of farce. Once again, the joke depends on a fantastic premise being developed with impeccable logic; and one can only marvel at the variations Frayn plays on a situation in which coitus is endlessly interrupted by the imagined arrival of the cuckolded husband … A high point is reached when Lyndsey Marshal's delectable adulteress, forced to shimmer in the pretence that she is a mirage, shakes like a seductive jelly. But what this triple bill, nimbly directed by Hodge and neatly designed by Vicki Mortimer, really proves is that for British dramatists like Frayn and Simpson absurdism is less a cry of despair than an opportunity for exuberant laughter.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) - “A new play from Britain's brainiest farceur, The Crimson Hotel shows how absurdist drama can work when it exploits the tricks and conventions of theatre. A half-hour piece of hokum played by Capaldi and Marshal, it’s a mind-bending romp about a playwright seducing his leading lady which deliberately blurs the boundaries between reality and invention. Thus, as an excuse for spending time together the couple pretend to be rehearsing a scene - but the scene is about a playwright seducing his leading lady. It’ s the kind of theatrical brain-teasing Frayn did in his magnificent comedy Noises Off, but here he lets himself go with mischievous abandon, playing with mime as well as logic and ending with a gloriously satisfying coup de theatre. What a shame you have to sit through the guff to get to the gold.”
Kieron Quirke in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Absurdism has made great headway since English pioneer NF Simpson wrote his first plays in the Fifties … The Donmar's triple bill, directed by Douglas Hodge, contains two of his plays and confirms our familiarity with the movement's techniques. It's perfectly entertaining, but as provocative as a jam sandwich. A Resounding Tinkle features Bro and Middie Paradock (Peter Capaldi and Judith Scott), a lower middle-class couple of limited horizons, later typical of Monty Python sketches … The strokes of silliness keep things refreshing … Unfortunately, in between times, the bathetic humour of the Paradocks' chat, parroted at a fair old whack, hits home too rarely … No such mixed messages in Gladly Otherwise, where John Hodgkinson - great as ever - plays a paranoid man from the ministry come to survey a bog-standard house. It's a sketch that would still be at home on Radio 4, and the funniest thing on the bill. Least funny is a new contribution by Michael Frayn. The Crimson Hotel is an homage to French farce … Call it Feydeau meets Scream … The absurdity is forced and, as the farceur, Capaldi is again no laugh magnet, but while you're willing to play along it's endearing, and by the time you're not the end is in sight.”
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