Arts: A smoke alarm ruined my marriage

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT WAS almost a divorcing situation. The smoke alarms we'd had installed were so sensitive you only had to blush to set them off. So, without telling anyone, I removed the batteries.

"Do you want the children to burn in their beds?" screamed my wife when she found out.

Everything was duly restored, but then, after a few months, we were treated to a mysterious periodic chinking sound which I eventually tracked down to the alarm's desperately cheeping an SOS for new batteries. With relief, I took out the old ones and, being useless with technology, forgot all about it. Then we had a teeny conflagration in the kitchen....

This is the kind of situation Michael Frayn makes clever comic capital out of in his new eight-pack of plays entitled Alarms and Excursions. Indeed, people who like to go to the West End in the hope of a deep, restful sleep will have their work cut out remaining dormant during the first of these items.

A farce about how we are all at the hapless mercy of the gadgets which are designed to make life easy and safe for us, it follows the unavailing efforts of two married couples to enjoy a quiet evening together. They don't even get to the drinks stage, though, because the corkscrew is so ingeniously constructed to be labour-saving that nobody can get the damn thing to work. From there, via the baffling chinkings of famished smoke alarms, the situation escalates to a frantic pandemonium, as a combination of human error and a snazzy new system for sending phone calls all over the house prevents the husband from making direct contact with the voice that is leaving dire warnings of financial ruin and prison on the answering machine. With various bells, buzzers, bleepers, burglar and car alarms chipping in, it becomes like a worst-nightmare scenario for those of us whose minds go a complete blank on merely glancing at an instruction manual.

In Michael Blakemore's elegant and well-paced production, Josie Lawrence, Robert Bathurst, Nicky Henson and Felicity Kendal take on all the various roles and perform in just the right upbeat, sparkily demonstrative comic style. The evening reminds you what an excellent and humorous columnist Frayn has been; it reminds you, too, of a humorous column's potential drawbacks: the danger that neat, witty ideas will be laboriously over- elaborated.

The best sketches here are those that don't outstay their welcome - like the one in which an (unseen) air-hostess who is used to being ignored when giving safety instructions, sends up the situation by demonstrating an erotic strip, still using the same soporifically level tones. This utterly gobsmacks the one passenger naive and inexperienced enough about air travel to be watching her.

Other sketches, like the piece about mirror-image couples in mirror-image hotel rooms attempting to make mirror-image escapes from each other have, despite blissful moments, a protracted feel. On balance, though, worth the excursion.

Paul Taylor