Farce in novel form

2012-11-07 00:00


Michael Frayn

faber & faber

THINK of farce and think of Michael Frayn, and you think of Noises Off, that wonderful explosion of theatrical lunacy. The script is, of course, witty, but a lot of its success is visual — the set, the marvellous scene with the axe (which I have never seen better done than in Peter Mitchell’s Hexagon production some years ago), and the plate of sardines.

But here Frayn, who, it seems, can turn his hand to pretty well anything, has written farce as a novel. Farce defies explanation because if it is set down in black and white it is often hard to see why it is funny — it looks ridiculous. But I’ll try. The setting is the Greek island of Skios (which will play a role in a passing confusion between Skios and skiers).

The island is home to a dubious Foundation where “thinkers” and pretentious hangers-on gather and other, more criminal activities lurk in the wings. Each year, the Foundation invites a prestigious speaker to their annual boring lecture, and this year is the turn of Dr Norman Wilfred, whose subject is Scientometrics, whatever they are. Nobody cares anyway.

However, when Dr Wilfred arrives at the airport, his case, and identity, end up in the hands of a sponging playboy, Oliver Fox, whose name, in the mouths of the Greek taxi drivers (a pair of brothers who serve the same function as bedroom doors in stage farce) becomes Phoksoliva. He is heading for a dirty weekend with one, or possibly two, women in a borrowed villa. Okay, so it doesn’t sound all that funny.

Frayn is making points about pretensions, gullibility and expectations, but if you try to take all this seriously, you might end up deeply bewildered.

I have to say that to really work, farce probably needs to be seen: on the page it inevitably lacks some of the breathlessness of a stage performance, and gives the reader time to say: “just hang on a minute …”; but taken purely as a daft romp, it does pretty well.



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