Review – Absurdia, Donmar Warehouse

Tuesday 31 July 2007

What is the absurd? It’s difficult for the Whingers to say exactly.

Andrew knows that Phil must have quite a well-tuned sense of it judging by the choices he makes vis a vis his wardrobe; Phil believes Andrew must too on the basis of his oxymoronic “trendy beard”. But neither of them can pin it down more than that really.

So the opportunity to see Absurdia (a triple-bill of short British absurdist comedies) at The Donmar Warehouse presented an ideal opportunity to gen up.

Absurdia is directed by Douglas Hodge and features revivals of two plays by N.F. Simpson – A Resounding Tinkle and Gladly Otherwise – plus a previously unperformed Michael Frayn play The Crimson Hotel.

What’s more, the thing promised to be all over 90 minutes with no interval. The Whingers were pinning their hopes on this one to break their recent track record of half-seen plays.

But first there was some straight talking to be done at the box office regarding elephants.

Regular readers will recall Andrew’s indignation regarding the Donmar’s ticket offer promising free elephants to all and sundry. Having booked their tickets before said offer and what with being a “friend” of the Donmar, Andrew was determined to claim an elephant come hell or high water.

Phil, it has to be said, was fairly indifferent on the question of elephants but Andrew was in assertive mode so on arrival he marched towards a woman behind in the box office. But then he noticed she looked quite stern and so veered off at the last minute towards a younger, more malleable-looking colleague.

“I booked my tickets ages ago – before the elephant offer. Can I have an elephant?”

The young man consulted his sterner colleague who was clearly the only person entitled to authorise the distribution of elephants. The woman raised her eyes briefly and scowled (at the thought of all the paperwork, possibly) but gave her consent.

The young man produced a tatty plastic carrier bag and fished out an elephant.

Andrew grasped it with glee. But then, thinking how disappointed Phil would be, enquired: “do we get two?”.

The young man consulted with his colleague again. This time the scowl was accompanied by a shake of the head and the words “just one”.

Phil – sensing that Andrew’s indignation level was getting dangerously high and that things could get awkward – dragged him away by the elbow with Andrew wailing over his shoulder: ” .. but I’m a friend of the Donmar. I’m a FRIEND!”

Anyway, Phil managed to bundle Andrew into the auditorium and calm him down.

A Resounding Tinkle kicks off with an ordinary couple, the Paradocks (Peter Capaldi and Judith Scott) trying to decide on a new name for the elephant which they have just had delivered. It is larger than the one they were expecting and so their original name – Mr Trench – won’t do. Not much else happens but the dialogue is suitably, well, absurd and playfully explores the mundane nature of words and phrasing in a way that reminded Phil of Monty Python and Victoria Wood.

Indeed, it kept the Whingers reasonably alert. But a little absurdism goes quite a long way and thankfully it has been cut down from its original length. The wonderful Lyndsey Marshal (Cleopatra in the popular HBO series, Rome) lifted the piece up a gear when she arrived but it still felt a bit repetitive. But then it was written in the fifties long before this style of humour became mainstream (Phil still considers it “new comedy”).

430054th.jpgPhil was impressed with Mrs Paradock’s deft handling of raffia, as she fashioned a lampshade on stage and is now thinking of ditching his (now) popular food-on-stage thesis and starting again – this time exploring stage handicrafts. Remember, you heard it here first.

A clever set change (which Phil had worked out from the outset and generously spoilt for Andrew) prepares the stage for the second Simpson – Gladly Otherwise – which at ten minutes is little more than a sketch but proves the highlight of the show in the Whingers’ humble opinion.

Judith Scott makes an effective character switch from Mrs Paradock to Mrs Brandywine who is visited by a strange official (John Hodgkinson) who quizzes her on her door handles and other elements of her house.

This turns into an inquisition as Mrs B’s words are twisted and used against her. Hodgkinson seizes his all-too-brief moment with aplomb and – remarkably – left the Whingers actually wanting more. There was a very good gag about the wallpaper and Simpson clearly has a gifted ear for dialogue (and make sure you read his refreshing biog in the programme, £2.50).

Unfortunately although Michael Frayn’s The Crimson Hotel is built on a clever idea it never really worked for Phil who felt it was more to be admired for its cleverness than enjoyed.

The conceit is far too complicated to explain, but it has resonances of Frayn’s Noises Off and hefty dollops of Ayckbourn (but without the laughs).

Although it was well-played by Capaldi and Marshal, the Whingers barely broke a chuckle (Is absurdism necessarily funny? Discuss) and neither did the rest of the audience.

The Crimson Hotel involves a great deal of physical mime from the actors and Andrew was quite appalled by the quality of it. Surely, it used to be the case that the first six months at drama school were almost entirely devoted to mime classes in spite of the fact that there is no call for it really unless you end up doing street theatre (and surely no-one actually goes to drama school with that as their ambition).

Frankly it was a shambles and we do wonder if this was a little joke by Frayn – reintroducing a lost “art” now that it’s no longer considered stagecraft.

Anyway, these are minor grumbles and Andrew at least found the ending of Frayn’s piece extremely satisfying (in a good way).
It was an enjoyable enough visit to the theatre and it was a relief to make it through an entire show for once. The evening had the added delightful bonus of bumping into fellow blogger John Morrison and his wife Penny after the show and they bought the Whingers a glass of wine each after the show. What lovely, lovely people!

Footnote: N.F Simpson is known to to his friends as Wally Simpson. The Whingers liked this one, N.F.’s friends sound a hoot.

5 Responses to “Review – Absurdia, Donmar Warehouse”

  1. Helen Smith Says:

    So the Donmar are giving away elephants and there is an elephant mentioned in one of the plays currently being staged there? What are the chances of that! The marketing people must be overjoyed at this serendipity.

    I read this review and thought with relief it was one evening I didn’t have to attend as you didn’t seem to like it much. But then I read John Morrison and he suggests that you all agreed over a glass of wine that it had been a worthwhile evening. Perhaps you just meant that a glass of wine and a chat with John and his wife Penny made it worthwhile?

  2. Sean Says:

    I thought it was not really an absurdist evening at all, but none of the plays meant very much anyway.

    The Frayn was awful, far far too long. Sad because the cast are so good and Hodge seems like a decent director.

    my review:

  3. Louise Says:

    A bad, bad, bad play.

    Not absurd just hellish. Life is too short to spend 90 minutes watching this drivel.

  4. Carola Stewart Says:

    Louise can’t be an actress to DARE say that about Frayn’s work. . . . who says we live in a country of freedom of speech?

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