Has anyone coined the term “Fraynetic” before? What better way to describe this “farcical riot on all the gizmos, gadgets and grief that modem life serves up” – which ran like clockwork on its opening performance at the Chipping Norton Theatre last night.
“Alarms and excursions” was a commonly used Shakespearean stage direction betokening lots of chaotic frenzied running on and off stage, to give the impression of a riot or battlefield. Michael Frayn ingeniously expanded this stage direction into the basis for a whole theatrical work, which provides a challenge, not just to the cast but to the technical crew. In fact, at some points, one was aware that the sound technician (Fergus Nimmo) was like a fifth member of the perfectly orchestrated cast. To work, the timing had to be absolutely tight. And it was.
Alarms and Excursions is an unusually constructed work, consisting of six comic scenarios. Part of the fun was figuring out what connected the six disparate pieces. The Chipping Norton team focused on the “headaches of the technological age” aspect, both in terms of the publicity and the production style, slick and pacy with lots of flashes and beeps. Even the programme was entertainingly produced in the style of an instruction manual. However, technology only really featured overtly in the first and last of the scenarios; and it was interesting to reflect on what has changed and what has not, since the piece was written in 1998. What has not changed is our basic humanity, and all that goes with it, by way of our attempts and failures to communicate with each other, and the following absurd, hysterical, desperate and hilarious consequences. The fabulous set reflected this, with the multiplicity of doors opening and closing throughout, suspended from a skeletal structure with panels stripped back to show wires protruding like exposed nerves.
The cast were all faultless in their portrayal of their various personae; particularly Kali Peacock, who injected a wonderful spirit of bemused pathos into the Ayckbournish world of the other characters. They had the whole audience in stitches. In short, this excellent production gave us an evening helpless with mirth in the theatre but with plenty of food for philosophical reflection on the way home.