Michael Frayn on Alarms and Excursions
Such mysteries supply some of the themes evident in Alarms and Excursions, Michael Frayn's comic compendium. The play does not attempt to give answers to these modern-day irritants but takes a deliciously humorous look at our tortuous relationship with technology, at our inability to communicate with one another and at our confusion when confronted by today's soulless uniformity that renders every high street and every hotel bedroom indistinguishable from all the others.
Audiences will laugh sympathetically and a little nervously at the plight of the characters they will meet in Alarms and Excursions because we have all been browbeaten by adverse circumstance, exasperated by malfunctioning machinery and plagued by misfiring social arrangements.
What made Frayn choose to put these miniature plays together in one collection? He answers with a culinary analogy. "I rather like the idea of a tapas evening, when you have a lot of small dishes and I often find that a more attractive proposition than sitting through a huge meal. I can't claim that these plays are Greek tragedies; they are in fact expressions of ideas which have occurred to me now and again over the years and which continue to strike me.
"Most of Alarms and Excursions is about our relationship with machines and how treacherous they can be in their dealings with us. We have always had this relationship with tools and the progress which they are supposed to bring has always been double-edged.
We invented a hammer, a device that was so much better at banging in nails than anything we'd had before, but also something which could give you a painful blow on the thumb. What messes up machines are human intentions. Inventing something invariably leads to unintended consequences: machines mean that things never work out as expected."
Surprisingly, perhaps, Frayn turns out to be just as besotted a techie as some of the characters in Alarms and Excursions. "I love gadgets but my love is not returned", he laments. "Gadgets don't love me, nice as I am to them, and when they don't do what they are supposed to do, I become extremely angry. It's the only time I really lose my temper."
In Doubles, two couples book adjoining rooms in one of the identikit hotels which are such a feature of modern-day travel. "I'm pointing out how things today are made affordable by repeating the same pattern over and over again.". "When the hotel rooms are exactly the same as each other, different couples fall into similar patterns of behaviour.
People have become dependent on things always being the same - which is why when one of the men gets up in the middle of the night to have a pee, he's conditioned to finding the loo in exactly the same place as it was in the hotel room where he slept twenty-four hours earlier. But he's forgotten that he's in a different hotel and in his confusion he falls over the furniture."
In Toasters Frayn illustrates a social dilemma which most of us have faced without finding a workable solution. "We've all attended functions where we've spent most of the time, sitting, listening to endless speeches. But the moment will come when you'll be expected either to applaud or to drink a toast. But which is it to be? It's one of the fundamental difficulties of life. It's extremely difficult to clap your hands if you're already holding a full glass."
Frayn agrees that there are echoes of intimate revue, a once-popular form of theatrical entertainment that vanished during the 1960s, allegedly killed off by the extraordinary success of Beyond The Fringe. "There were a lot of very funny things in revue" Frayn recalls. "I remember a hilarious sketch about an amateur operatic society putting on a Gilbert and Sullivan production that was completely inaudible and that made me laugh and laugh.
“I also remember Cranks, devised by the choreographer John Cranko, which I saw when I was a student. He didn't include any topical references and it had such terrific sophistication that it inspired me to write my own revue. That was put on in Cambridge but it was not a success."
For Alarms and Excursions, Frayn uses a small, hard-working cast of two men and two women, and he chose a similar four-handed format for Benefactors, his 1983 play. Why the modest scale?
"I like to keep the size of the cast fairly tight - for aesthetic as well as financial reasons. What's the point of having an actor whose sole function is to announce that "the carriage awaits" at some point in the performance?" Frayn also has a tendency, especially in the farces, to give his actors a great deal of physical business to carry out and Alarms and Excursions is no exception:
"Aden Gillett told me at the read-through that he suffered a lot of bruising from his time in Noises Off. I remember being at the matinée of another production of the play in Oxford. One of the actors fell down the stairs, as he was supposed to do, but he cut himself badly in the process.
“I think that the audience believed that the resulting great pool of blood flowing across the stage was actually part of the action. The poor man tried to carry on but he eventually collapsed and was rushed into intensive care."
Coincidentally this tour will visit the Oxford Playhouse with the cast, one hopes, emerging unscathed from the experience. Frayn has a number of associations with the theatres where this production will be playing. "It was in the Arts Theatre in Cambridge where my revue failed " recalls Frayn with a hint of regret. "As for Milton Keynes, I think that we opened the revival of Benefactors there. The theatre is next to a multi-storey car park and I remember the sound of the wind whooshing through its upper reaches.
“I have very warm feelings towards the Oxford Playhouse and I believe we may have opened the pre-London tour of the original production of Alarms and Excursions in Malvern. There were certainly walks through the Malvern Hills. The Theatre Royal Brighton is a beautiful theatre, as is Richmond, and Richmond is within walking distance of my home."
Some playwrights are extremely protective of their work and the finished script is treated as if it were holy writ. Frayn, by contrast, is happy to carry out revisions if he feels they are necessary.
"I did a lot of rewriting when the National revived Noises Off and when there was a new West End production of Donkeys' Years. When you've regularly seen a play you've written, you feel your fingers itching to improve it. I make a point of going to see major revivals of my plays, especially if I've been working with the director on the production.
“To some extent, I feel that the text which I have written is only one version of the play. Both the cast and the audience have their versions, too, and to see one of my plays in performance with an audience can be a very illuminating experience."