Review – Afterlife by Michael Frayn, National Theatre

Thursday 12 June 2008

To stage one verse play may be regarded as a misfortune; to stage two looks like carelessness. Or malice.

Yes, after the unpleasantness of Fram, the National has contrived to prescribe for the general public’s indigestion yet another unpalatable dose of doggerel in the form of Michael Frayn’s Afterlife.

Surely some mistake? We think this is how it must have happened…

Picture the scene at the National’s literary department the day that the eagerly awaited jiffy bag from Mr Frayn finally thuds into their in-tray with the force of a brick into a box of kittens.

They tear off the top of the bag and all gather round to gasp in awe at the first sight of a brand new play by the very clever man who penned the brilliant Noises Off and some other plays that were clearly written by someone of great intelligence and went down very well with the critics.

Tentatively holding the edge of the front page by only his fingertips, Nicholas Hytner gingerly turns the page…

“Salzburg. 1920. Yes. Different. Ooh, Max Reinhardt. Yes, people may have heard of him. None of your Fridtjof Nansen nonsense. Heh heh. Promising, promising…”

Mr Hytner turn the page to Act 1 and freezes. The room, hitherto silent yet buzzing with anticipation, is suddenly merely silent.

“It’s… in… verse!” someone – possibly Chris Campbell – finally whispers.

“Oh, no!” cries the entire congregation.

“What are we going to do?”

“We’ll have to send it back”

“Send it back? Send it back? It’s Michael Bloody Frayn not Marks and Spencer. We can’t send it back!”

“Well, someone’s going to have to tell him! We tried all this rhyming stuff in that bloody Harrison thing and look where that got us.”

They all shudder.

Mr Hytner turns to the next page. Then the next. Then the next and so on faster and faster until:

“Wait! It’s OK. It’s not ALL in verse. Just some of it!”

“Perhaps we could just ask him to take out the rhyming bits?”

“Well, I’m not asking him. It’s Michael Bloody Frayn! You ask him.”

“You do it. You’re in charge, aren’t you?”

The phone rings. They all stare at it, then at each other. No-one moves.

“Oh for heaven’s sake….”

Mr Hytner answers it cautiously.

“Hello? Yes, oh, hello, Mr Frayn. Yes, Sir, it’s just arrived. We’re looking at it now. Yes. Marvellous. These rhyming bits… Yes, oh, I see, I see. Yes, very clever. Yes of course we’ll put it into production right away, Mr Frayn.”

A minion has been rifling through the manuscript during the call.

“You remember that Fram thing? Wasn’t that about the interplay of culture and real life?”

“Something like that. I wasn’t entirely sure, to be quite honest with you.”

“I’m pretty sure that it was. Well, so is this.”

“You’re pulling my leg.”

“Seriously. It’s a retelling of a medieval morality play that Reinhardt put on every year in Salzburg and it seems to layer the two things over each other – the play and Reinhardt’s life. If you ask me, Frayn is suggesting that art offers an equivalent to the religious afterlife and that the survival of Reinhardt’s visionary idea of theatre as a waking dream matches Everyman’s ultimate redemption. I’m seeing three stars at least from Billington, not least because it’s by Michael Frayn.”

“Well, that’s good. But what the flip does that really mean?”

“Well, I can’t be entirely sure but I think what he’s trying to say is that it’s a playful exploration of the ways in which language, faith and art express and shape our world. It presents not merely a notion of art reflecting life, but multiple mirrors reflecting back and forth an infinity of possibilities, bright, shining surfaces between which words and actions fly faster than light. The sort of thing The Times would give four stars to, not least because it’s by Michael Frayn.”

“Hmmm. I’m not really any the wiser, to be honest. What about that bastard De Jongh?”

“Well, no, admittedly he will probably have a quite different perspective on it. Something along the lines of: Is anyone at the National Theatre responsible for protecting their most famous writers and ensuring they do not risk their reputations? Does its director, Nicholas Hytner, ensure the latest works of these playwrights are produced on grounds of merit rather than of reputations for masterworks like Copenhagen? The questions are prompted by exposure to the weird, dull ramble that is Afterlife.”

“Hmmm. And it does look rather long.”

“Don’t worry. I was looking through it and I saw the same couplets repeated about 20 times so I expect Mr Frayn’s dotjet was on the blink. If we take out the duplicate pages it’s probably half that length.”

They remove the manuscript from its binding and begin to spread the many pages out across the floor.

“We’re never going to fit them all in here.”

They decamp to the Lyttelton stage and try again.

Having cleared the wings and the scene dock, they place the last pages down and pour over the results. Mr Hytner crumples visibly.

“It’s not an accident. It’s deliberate. He’s deliberately repeated bits over and over again. I knew I shouldn’t have given him a word count. It’s the oldest trick in the book.”

“I think it’s a stylistic thing, actually. You know. Pattern being constituted out of similarity and difference. And then there’s that whole metatheatre thing going on. That always goes down well.”

“Mmmm. Possibly.”

They pause for a moment and look at each other.

Decisively: “You’re right. It’s clearly the work of a man of monstrous intelligence and I’d have recognised that even if it hadn’t said ‘by Michael Frayn’ on the first page.”

“We’re doing it then?”

“Of course we’re doing it. It’s by MICHAEL BLOODY FRAYN.”

“Hang on. What’s this?”

“Oh for god’s sake, he’s written a bloody essay to go with it. He’s gone all George Bernard Shaw.”

“That’s long, too. About eight pages, I’d say.”

“Well, we’re going to have to put it in the programme; it’s in the contract. But print the first page black-on-pink and then people will lose interest and think it’s simply their own fault for not being as intelligent as Michael Frayn. We’re committed.”

“But what about… what about the West End Whingers? What are they going to say?”

“We open two days after that fluffy old rep stand-by that Grandage is exhuming for the Donmar. They won’t give a damn.”

Cut to: Press night. At the National Theatre the West End Whingers – still on a high from the previous night’s The Chalk Garden (to which, we might say, Nicholas De Jongh gave five stars – he’s growing on us) – are full of cheers and still celebrating their rediscovered love of the theatre, especially the kind with good parts for more mature ladies. They are invincible. Nothing can spoil their mood.

Cut to: The next day. Their review reads something like this:

In the unlikely event you are simple-minded enough to take any notice of the WEW ramblings and think they’ve completely lost the plot with their rave aboutThe Chalk Garden, rest assured that just as day becomes night for every black there is white, for every good there is evil and for anything that is fragrant there lurks a real stinker around the next U bend.

And this particular piece of merde plops into the National Theatre in the form of Michael Frayn’s lastest offering, Afterbirth Afterthought Aftershave Halflife Afterlife.

To be fair, it has inspired the Whingers into a flurry of creativity. Not only are they feverishly adding a new chapter to their book (“Not Since Resurrection Blues“) but they’re rushing to complete their own verse play which they will bike over to Mr Hytner while he’s on his verse play roll (after all, bad things come in threes). Either that or they’ll just leave their very important manuscript on a train seat knowing that it will at least find its way safely to the BBC.

Now all things about Max Reinhardt sound so promising… the Ziegfield of his day he produced big shows with absurdly huge casts, four tier sets and even commissioned the Whingers’ latest discovery George Bernard Shaw to write a play for him. How could the Whingers not love him?

But unfortunately, Afterlife seems to be about a shadow of the man, rather than the man himself. Overblown, pedestrian, dull, grandiose, repetitive and tedious, Frayn’s play is all intellect and no heart or soul. His love of theatre about theatre (so successful in Noises Off because farce is intrinsically about pattern, maths and long-distance observation) just comes across here as a dry, intellectual exercise with the smugness of one who has completed a particularly hard Sudoku. But look over his shoulder and it’s just numbers in a grid.

But the worst thing is the repetitiousness. The Whingers lost count of the number of times the opening lines of the morality play were spoken. You probably can’t imagine how irritating that is.

Worse than that, it reads as though Frayn has no confidence or trust in plays. They – apparently – only have merit if they are about themselves.

But the worst thing is the repetitiousness. The Whingers lost count of the number of times the opening lines of the morality play were spoken. You probably can’t imagine how irritating that is.

“Don’t rush it. Let them come to you” says Reinhardt as he directs one of his actors. Well, sorry, but you have to come to us, Mr Frayn.

But the worst thing is the repetitiousness. The Whingers lost count of the number of times the opening lines of the morality play were spoken. You probably can’t imagine how irritating that is.

There were almost sighs of relief in the audience when the epilogue was announced (the play is 2½ hours long) but Frayn had another trick up his sleeve – the longest epilogue in theatrical history.

But the worst thing is the repetitiousness. The Whingers lost count of the number of times the opening lines of the morality play were spoken. You probably can’t imagine how irritating that is.

The only respite came when the Whingers and entourage were finally allowed to flee into the night to find solace in a few bottles of wine. And if Phil repeated his same, tired old anecdotes, somehow they didn’t seem quite as repetitious as they usually do.

Life After Afterlife

Natasha, Phil, Graham and Andrew find respite, conviviality and enjoyment After Afterlife.


23 Responses to “Review – Afterlife by Michael Frayn, National Theatre”

  1. Mark I Says:

    Is that the funniest review ever written?

  2. Simone Says:

    This is a HOOT of a review guys!

  3. TimW Says:

    I’ll be interested to see this on Tuesday. I am already steeled against bad Frayn having seen Look Look ( in 1990

  4. Hedgie Says:

    Bravo. Your point about the repetition is well made – absolutely arduous.

  5. Max Gluteus Says:

    I also saw Frayns ” LOOK LOOK” in 1990.
    It was about bad audience behaviour, so i booed it at the curtain call.
    Keep up the Whinging guys. xx

  6. Hannah Says:

    I have just found something that will make the whingers very happy (or very sad, depending on how you look at it…)

    During the run of Now or Later, an afternoon series of ten readings of CARYL CHURCHILL plays will also be held Downstairs from 15 to 26 September 2008. Churchill has been associated with the Court for 36 years and is considered not only one of the most influential of living British dramatists but, according to Cooke, “the one who is most admired” by her peers. In recognition of that, the theatre has invited fellow playwrights to select and direct their favourite Churchill play in celebration of her 70th birthday.

    See you there?!

  7. Hannah Says:

    oops, hope you enjoy the accidental wink! 😉

  8. Ted Kraus Says:

    Not only one of the funniest WEW reviews yet, but also
    the best written. Hope you guys stick to your FREEDOM
    and never sell out (to free pre and interval drinks and
    free programs.)

  9. Imagine my disquiet when, four days after seeing David Schofield playing a character at a theatre director’s party who turns out to ba a) a Nazi Gauleiter and b) Death, I toddled along to theatre director Mike Bradwell’s party to find among the guests David Schofield…

    Happily, neither jackboots nor scythe were in evidence (nor, indeed, were tetrameter couplets), and the most unsettling moment of the night came when I caught sight of style journalist Peter York discreetly dancing… well, moving his knees in much the same way as Andy McCluskey of OMD used to jiggle while playing his bass guitar.

  10. BobBobBob Says:

    But the worst thing is the repetitiousness. The Whingers lost count of the number of times the opening lines of the morality play were spoken. You probably can’t imagine how irritating that is.

  11. crustygit Says:

    My my my oh yes. Truly utterly bad.

  12. Robert Says:

    How true, how true, how true [and so on]
    At the interval we said, “betya that somewhere in the second half a Nazi flag unfurls and a Nazi in uniform strides onto the stage and salutes. ”
    Actually it was three flags and three Nazis.
    Never have I appreciated before the brilliance, the charm, the complex plot, of The Sound of Music. [And here I am referring to the amateur stage revival at the Luton Empire 1971 when the orchestra was on strike and the singers played it mum out of sympathy.]
    This kind of production must cost several hundred thousand pounds to stage. Does no-one look at it on the page or in rehearsal and have the courage to say “No!” It seems not.
    It was bad. It was bad. It was bad.[sorry – no more repetition jokes]

  13. Edmund Kean Says:

    I quite liked fram

  14. Judy Says:

    so you’re the one

  15. Julia Says:

    I have never seen this site before and I have had a really good laugh. I was checking reviews for Afterlife as I have to choose between an unexpected funeral and the play.
    I am quite sure now that, while not strictly my duty, the funeral will be the more interesting staged event!
    Thanks. You are on my desktop!

  16. @ Julia: Probably more laughs, too.

  17. Samson Says:

    Saw it last night and totally agree.

    Hilarious review.

  18. Kate Foy Says:

    “But the worst thing is the repetitiousness. The Whingers lost count of the number of times the opening lines of the morality play were spoken. You probably can’t imagine how irritating that is.”

    Oh yes I can, yes I can, yes I can!

  19. Elaine Says:

    One whinge too far. Saw it yesterday, expecting the worst having seen ‘Copenhagen’ which was so clever it forgot it was a drama; this one was clever and dramatic and totally engaging.

  20. Julia "fineeyes" Says:

    Ugh… definitely an acquired taste, my parents thought it was just wonderful, I thought it was pretentious tedium. It’s enough to make me contemplate giving up the theatre for good.

  21. carol Says:

    oh no – I simply cannot believe my misfortune (or stupidity, depending how you look at it). My penniless partner and I had tickets for a tenner to Fram and thought we it was the most excruciating piece of theatre we had ever had to endure.

    to make up for it, I bought us tickets for tonight’s performance of Afterlife, as we have never been disappointed by Frayn…..

    I guess I should have looked at the reviews a bit earlier?

  22. Chris Says:

    A great review but I didn’t think Afterlife was that bad. The repetition was OK, but there were some excruciating bits – such as the servant-serving-diner-dance before the interval, and the whole California section. Fierce editing could disclose a good one-at play.

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