Absurdia at the Donmar Warehouse comprises of three short absurdist plays (although the plays may feature absurd situations they are not wholly absurdist in the philosophical sense), two dating from the 1950’s by N.F Simpson and a new work by Michael Frayn. I felt that the Simpson plays were superior to Frayn’s effort, with Simpson at least offering a few different jokes to divert us. Douglas Hodge makes his Donmar directorial debut as an associate director at the theatre (Hodge is best known for his acting career, he was an excellent Nathan Detroit in Michael Grandage’s Guys and Dolls).
The first play, A Resounding Tinkle, by Simpson, has us in the Paradock household, somewhere in suburban London. The Paradock’s elephant has been delivered, but it is several times bigger than ordered, which causes much fretting and consternation. Eventually a plan is devised to exchange the oversized pachyderm for a neighbour’s tiny snake, but in the meantime Mr Paradock is asked to form a government and a transsexual Uncle drops by. The play has plenty of jokes and absurd situations to delight its audience, the only problem being that I thought it was trying far too hard. Some of the jokes are very funny, but overall the self conscious cleverness wore thin. Simpson’s second piece of the evening is Gladly Otherwise, where an unknown bureaucrat barges into Mrs Brandywine’s home and starts ‘inspecting’ things, such as door knobs and wallpaper with a hint of officious menace. It only lasts 10 minutes, and that is just about right for a light comic vignette.
The dramatic low point of the evening was Michael Frayn’s play The Crimson Hotel; was it ever going to end? Was it only 3 minutes since I last checked my watch? My mind even turned to domestic arrangements and anticipation of the banana I was planning to eat on the way back to Holborn station, which is not a good sign (absurdist thought perhaps?). If this had been a 10 minute amusement like the previous piece I might have enjoyed the conceit, but at 30 minutes it far outstayed its welcome. We have a bare stage (with very decent set design for the 3 playlets by Vicki Mortimer) and two characters, one and actress the other the author of the play she is appearing in. The 19th century Parisian writer has taken the object of his lusts into the desert to seduce her, but she is resisting by putting up obstacles to their ‘rehearsal’ of the bedroom scene in the writer’s own play, and they both think that her husband might be on the horizon. The creaking of an unseen door and numerous other sound effects represent the red hotel bedroom of the title, and my god did it wear thin. The constant repetition, the supposedly hilarious physical acting out of the bedroom scene were not amusing at all after a while (and it was no character piece either). It became pure farce, with an absurdist touch at the end. It does have echoes of Frayn’s other work based around the theatre, Noises Off, but not an ounce of it’s genuine humour (I have to declare my partiality to Mr Frayn’s more sober works, rather then his comedy).
The acting by a the cast of four was very good, with Judith Scott as the worrisome Mrs Paradock, and Peter Capaldi as her husband (and the amorous playwright in the last play), on particularly brilliant form.
I detected a coolness in the audience towards all the pieces too, there were few hearty laughs and no applause between plays (the set is changed, it is obvious that one has finished and another about to begin). Perhaps you have to be in the mood for absurdist comedies, and I’m not particularly good with farce at the best of times. It is such as shame as I think Douglas Hodge is probably a very competent director and his cast are certainly very talented. But of course many people will roar with laughter, when it comes to comedy taste can be very personal indeed.