Alarms and Excursions at the Gielgud Theatre

We live in a world awash with gadgets - laptops, palmtops, personal organisers, answering machines, pagers, mobiles, burglar alarms, smoke alarms, digital this, virtual that. All designed to make us work faster, communicate better, live easier. That s the theory anyway.

The reality is that progress has its price. Michael Frayn s latest dramatic offering Alarms and Excursions, directed by Michael Blakemore, exacts this price for all comic pay-off in a series of eight sketches, performed by Felicity Kendal, Nicky Henson, Josie Lawrence and Robert Bathurst.

The first act is comprised of two longer vignettes, both involving two couples. In the first, four yuppie friends - speaking in the clipped, distracted manner of the terminally busy - endure a dinner party from hell as a household s gadgets revolt. Amid beepings and whinings, an answering machine sends an important call ricocheting around the house s phone extensions and Lawrence loses a finger to a high-tech bottle-opener. In the second vignette, the couples are strangers, trapped in adjacent hotel rooms, but this does nothing to improve understanding between each other or their respective partners.

The twin themes - electronic chaos and miscommunication - are carried through to the second act. Here six sketches are whizzed through in the manner of a zany Footlights revue. There s the aeroplane safety demonstration that turns into a striptease; the conference where loaded down executives struggle to eat, toast and applaud simultaneously; the deafening cocktail party where innocent chat is misheard for sexual proposition; the politician held to ransom by her autocue operator; the fouled-up rendezvous plans complicated by the mediation of an answering machine.

None of the situations feel altogether fresh, but the sense of deja vu may be as much to a suspicion that you ve seen something similar on Saturday night telly as the fact that so many of the exchanges are spot on. Yes, you feel when the couples explore their hotel room, bicker over a misplaced public word or try to extricate themselves from a social situation, been there done that. Frayn certainly has a keen eye and ear for the inner-workings of relationships.

His observations are borne out by the performances as well which are all strong (despite Kendal s wobbly accent when she tries to play common-as-muck). The best parts go to Bathurst and Lawrence and they do the most with them. Bathurst has particular fun as the painfully polite German visitor who gushes thanks to his hosts, via their infuriating answering machine, even after their ineptitude lands him in the hospital.

None of it stays with you, but Alarms and Excursions is a pleasant enough diversion - and a good excuse to switch your mobile off for a couple of hours.

Terri Paddock