A man and a woman discuss an elephant they have had delivered. It's too large, several times the size of the bijou model they had last year. Shall they swap it for a snake? The elephant waits patiently offstage, out of sight, BUT WE KNOW IT'S THERE. Or do we? This is the world of N F Simpson, absurdist playwright of the 1950s and 1960s, revived at the Donmar Theatre as two-thirds of a triple bill with a short piece by Michael Frayn. Simpson is I think largely forgotten today, though arguably his kind of humour helped pave the way for Monty Python, Pete and Dud and their successors. Absurdism was never a coherent movement, even though the critic Martin Esslin wrote a book about it. Rather than a doctrine, it was just a box of non-realist tricks into which many writers dipped -- Pinter, Ionesco, Beckett, Stoppard. Director Douglas Hodge has taken short two Simpson plays, A Resounding Tinkle and Gladly Otherwise. They're quite amusing but seem to me to be essentially radio pieces. They don't have the verbal wit of early Stoppard or the sinister menace of early Pinter (I'm thinking of A Slight Ache). There's not much effort to visualise what happens on stage and no real internal logic or depth. And the joke goes on rather too long; this is the kind of humour whose natural length is a minute or two (think of the dead parrot sketch).
The third short play is The Crimson Hotel by Michael Frayn, which is certainly non-realist but isn't absurd. It's a riff on the works of the great Georges Feydeau, the master farceur of whom Frayn (like me) is a fan. A man and a woman, a writer and an actress, play around with the elements of Feydeau's hotel farces -- the opening and shutting doors, the bed, the wardrobe, the secret passage, the impending arrival of the husband who has chosen the same hotel as his wife for a clandestine assignation. Frayn, unlike Simpson, sees his play in three dimensions and has something to say about the relationship between theatre, illusion and real life. This is the non-realist version of Noises Off, using the same starting point but ending up in a different place. I once saw a RADA production of Feydeau's Hotel Paradiso (L'Hotel du Libre Echange) in which the doors were imaginary, being represented only by sound effects. Frayn uses the same technique. Listening to the author's radio interview a few days ago on Front Row, I thought he seemed a bit bemused to find his play (written eight years ago but never performed) hailed as a piece of absurdist theatre. Who cares about labels? As played by Peter Capaldi and Lyndsey Marshall, it's very funny. Perhaps not as funny as Noises Off, but then nothing ever is.
One note: I saw a preview (press night is tonight) and there was a hitch with the set between the second and third plays, which caused a short delay. But if you take the risk of introducing an elephant backstage into such a confined space as the Donmar, you deserve everything you get.
Second note: This play runs without an interval, so the West End Whingers Andrew and Phil were unable to pull their usual vanishing trick at halftime. We agreed over a glass of wine afterwards that it was a worthwhile night out.