If you have ever pondered the question ‘when is a snake too short?’ or ‘how many eggs does a cod produce?’ then N F Simpson is your man. These, and other similarly important questions, crop up in A Resounding Tinkle, the first of two Simpson plays which feature in this triple-bill of absurdist comedy. Michael Frayn’s new one-act play The Crimson Hotel rounds off the evening, with Simpson’s Gladly Otherwise the filling in the sandwich that is Absurdia. Caroline Bishop went to the Donmar Warehouse for the first night.
There is an oddly dark, sinister feel to this evening of the absurd, from the moment the mysterious men in bowler hats arrange props on the stage, crunching through the gravel, to the creepy creaking of the set’s backdrop as it peels down in layers between each play, through the radio play that mirrors the characters’ conversation in A Resounding Tinkle and the unseen figures heard moving in the dark in The Crimson Hotel. It is almost like a dream, in which reality is skewed and yet, bizarrely, makes perfect sense.
Simpson’s two plays A Resounding Tinkle and Gladly Otherwise are nonsensical to the extreme, but somehow so firmly rooted in the ordinary that the situation seems perfectly reasonable. In the first, Middie and Bro Paradock are a 1950s middle aged suburban couple who have just had their elephant delivered, in part exchange for last year’s giraffe, only the elephant is – heavens! – too big. In Gladly Otherwise a man (a doorknob salesman? A surveyor? A relative?: “he didn’t say”) questions the perturbed Mrs Brandywine over the building of her house. Why does she need a floor? What is wallpaper doing on the walls? In these two plays what is normal is turned on its head – wastepaper bins and tea cosies make perfect hats and a religious service gives thanks for bats. Why not indeed?
The tone changes with the third play, Frayn’s The Crimson Hotel, a surreal mix of French farce and mime. A playwright and his leading lady rehearse how they can consummate their affair without her husband finding out. Expertly timed sound effects and voices in the dark take this odd tale from the slapstick to the surreal, culminating in a particularly absurd ending.
Director Douglas Hodge (Hodge, we find out in A Resounding Tinkle, is a good name for a monkey) has created a cohesive production – despite the differences in style between Simpson and Frayn – with the plays drawn together by the clever device of Vicki Mortimer’s layered backdrop and the bowler-hatted stage hands. The cast of four – Judith Scott, Peter Capaldi, Lyndsey Marshal and John Hodgkinson – slip swiftly from role to role, convincing us of the normality of the absurd in these strangely endearing characters. After all, if you did own a pet elephant, you wouldn’t want it so big it couldn’t fit in the garden, would you?