Absurdia @ Donmar Warehouse, London

cast list
Peter Capaldi
John Hodgkinson
Lyndsey Marshal
Judith Scott

directed by
Douglas Hodge
Absurdia is a celebration of British absurdist theatre, which reflects the surreal vein of humour in our culture. This entertaining trilogy of short plays a revival of two early works by the octogenarian N.F. Simpson and a new piece by Michael Frayn represents a more playful, zany style of comedy than the existential angst of continental playwrights such as Beckett and Ionesco.

Simpson was a pioneer of British Theatre of the Absurd in the fifties, and went on to write a prolific number of comic sketches for West End revues and TV shows, but is now almost forgotten. However, his influence on the likes of Peter Cook and Monty Python has had a lasting impact on British TV comedy today.

First performed exactly 50 years ago, A Resounding Tinkle – here in its shorter, one-act version – displays a delightfully dotty subversion of the conventional realism of the ‘well-made play’. A bickering suburban couple, Bro and Middie Paradock, have bought an elephant but it is larger than the size they ordered, so they exchange it for a two-inch snake. Later Uncle Ted turns up, but now transformed into a blonde, mini-skirt-wearing young woman. ‘Paradocksical’ indeed.

The success of the play is to treat these bizarre incidents as if they are banal. In a succession of hilarious one-liners and non sequiturs, Simpson gently satirizes the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ attitude of the Paradocks, peering out at their neighbours through net curtains, while various people call at the door, including someone who wants Bro to form a government and a couple of comedians desperate to amuse. The cast of Peter Capaldi, Judith Scott and Lyndsey Marshal play it absolutely straight, as if digesting a paragraph torn from a book is as normal as drinking a cuppa.

In the next, very short, skit by Simpson, Glady Otherwise, Capaldi and Scott play a rather more genteel couple, the Brandywines, who are visited at home by an officious Man (John Hodgkinson) determined to inspect their handles. Again, there are some very funny moments ridiculing bureaucratic intrusiveness and middle-class conformity, while the Man from the Ministry (of Silly Walks?) swaps his bowler hat for the tea cosy.

Frayn’s The Crimson Hotel is a characteristically ingenious exploration of the parameters of farce, following on from his perspective-changing innovations in Noises Off and Look Look. An amusing hybrid of Feydeau and Pirandello, it features playwright Pilou (Capaldi) intent on consummating his desire for actress Lucienne (Marshal). However, although he has brought her out into a featureless desert to escape her jealous husband, they are still enclosed by the invisible furniture of classic French hotel-room farce and there seems to be a figure on the horizon.

Frayn has great fun sending up conventional tropes. Self-consciously acknowledging the audience (the ‘fourth wall’), Pilou creates his own scenario but then becomes its victim, as reality and fiction merge, and ultimately he and his would-be paramour vanish from view as if they just existed in the imagination. Carolyn Downing’s sound design works beautifully to produce the effects of creaking doors and other furniture, as well as the disembodied voices of unseen characters.

Director Douglas Hodge handles proceedings with a suitably light touch, as the production becomes progressively uncluttered by stage paraphernalia. A layer of the wall in Vicki Mortimer’s doll’s house set falls apart after the first play, then everything totally collapses after the second play. Highly appropriate for an evening of off the wall humour, you might say.

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