You arrive on a hot day at a foreign airport. After you wheel your bag past a bored customs official, glass doors slide open to reveal that line of sweaty cab drivers who hold up notices carrying strange names. What if, instead of making a frantic search for the saviour who brandishes yours, you chose somebody's else's sign, somebody else's driver – somebody else's life?
Good books, and plays, tend to begin with strong and clear ideas. As does Michael Frayn's 11th novel, Skios. "Over the years," he says, "every time I've arrived in an airport somewhere, and seen that line of people holding up placards with names, I've thought: 'Supposing I went up to one of them and said I was somebody I wasn't.' They obviously don't know what the people they're waiting for look like."
Oliver Fox, Frayn's floppy-haired wastrel with a string of enraged girlfriends and a goofily seductive Made in Chelsea style, does just that when he snatches the identity of an eminent scientist due to speak at a high-minded symposium on a small Greek island. Cue a classic Fraynian farce, as richly laden with ideas as with plot-twists that hairpin and zigzag like the dusty roads of Skios itself. The book itself began as an unexpected detour. Frayn and his wife, the biographer Claire Tomalin, went on holiday to a Greek island so that he could work on his droll, touching and bittersweet family memoir, My Father's Fortune.
Then, "In the maddening way that one's mind works, I suddenly began to think about this story, and it began to fall into place." My Father's Fortune had to wait while Frayn mapped out the destiny of the impostor Oliver and his hapless victim: the guru of "scientometrics", Dr Norman Wilfred. The Fred Toppler Foundation, an ersatz temple to "European civilisation", in reality serves as the island laundry for the grubbier deals of a Greek plutocrat. It teeters and topples as Oliver brings his own scatty version of chaos theory to bear on "the great gear-chain of cause and effect".
Frayn notes that the swashbuckling heroes of adventure yarns often serve as "wish-fulfilments, and have the kind of superhuman courage that their authors don't have". Well, Oliver never lacks – if not courage, then sheer chutzpah: "The hero of this book, although he's not a terribly morally admirable man, does have the cheek to do what one sometimes wouldn't mind doing oneself." Indeed, his tightrope act of imposture trumps the usual fraudster's tricks. Oliver begins in total ignorance about Dr Wilfred and his globe-trotting career in "the scientific management of science" (a real discipline, by the way). "He sets himself the rather difficult task of passing himself off as someone about whom he knows nothing whatsoever. So has to feel his way all the time to find out about what people are expecting him to be like."
As always in Frayn's philosophical comedies, the alarms and excursions of a breakneck intrigue drive everyday reality to its logical – and illogical – conclusions. What scoundrelly Oliver does, reflects Frayn, "is really an exaggeration of what we're all doing all the time. We're all playing some kind of part, and we don't really know what kind of part it is we're supposed to be playing. We're trying to find it out, and to feel from other people's reactions whether we're doing the right thing – trying to find some kind of plausible way to be in life."
Freed by Oliver's coup from his uptight public personality, Dr Wilfred – stranded at a remote villa with one of Oliver's perplexed inamoratas – develops quite a taste for the no-strings, free-and-easy hedonism of his scandalous double. Does being Michael Frayn, I ask, ever feel like an onerous performance? Would he like to appoint an understudy? "You do get used to it," he muses. "Practice makes perfect."
Frayn, who will be 80 next year, enjoys more practice than ever at acting his many parts. Skios (Faber & Faber, £15.99) is his first novel for a decade, since Spies re-cast the author's wartime childhood in suburban Ewell into another trapdoor-strewn story of misplaced conviction and mistaken identity. After that, The Human Touch summed up over 500 nourishing but joke-studded pages his philosophy of events, of happenings, of process: the narratives that allow a story-spinning species to make sense, and make art, of its world.
As Skios retuns to some favourite Frayn terrains – where chance runs into choice, determinism wrangles with free will, and the random blows of fate shake our habitual need to construct plots – I wonder how far this supremely cunning storyteller also has a message to impart. Unlike the clunkily didactic Dr Wilfred, his creator has no fondess for delivering lectures: "I'd like to think I'd got some sort of programme for teaching people philosophy – but I'm afraid I haven't. Ideas just come to one's head and one tells a story the best one can. I really don't have any pedagogic aspirations." Even with the tenacious dialectics of The Human Touch, "I didn't do that with any intention of teaching people or persuading people. I just did it because it seemed to me that was the case!"
After that book, My Father's Fortune crafted a literary persona that many readers found warmer, and more vulnerable, than the cerebral clock-maker of some – cariacatural – Frayn portraits. It placed not only his father's life as a jaunty self-creator at its heart, but also his mother's sudden death. The memoir proved "a much more emotional experience" than some other works – "but it also made me laugh a lot, thinking about my father and our efforts to get on together". Always a wizard of dialogue, Tom Frayn's son lets us listen to this insecure, eccentric, class-shifting family: "I could hear his voice very clearly, and I could hear my stepmother's voice, and the voice of everyone except my mother... I did find that very painful. I couldn't begin to write dialogue for her."
Meanwhile, his career as a playwright has entered an Indian summer without end. The latest West End version of the evergreen Noises Off, now at the Novello, delivers nightly delight. At the Rose in Kingston, the revival of his (rewritten) Here elicits thrilled praise from the author for director Lisa Spirling and a cast that includes Alison Steadman and relative newcomer Zawe Ashton. "Every production tells me a lot," he says, "because the actors have to find something about these characters that re
lates to something about themselves." Elsewhere, the March revivals in Sheffield of three more overtly "philosophical" dramas – Benefactors, Democracy and Copenhagen – will be followed by a transfer to the Old Vic for Democracy. But in spite of all his experience, "theatre is terrifying" for Frayn.
I talk to him, in his publisher's offices, after the first night of Here. "Although we didn't have the press in, although it's a play that's been done before, although we've been previewing for a week, I still had that familiar touch of fear around my heart as I went into the theatre. But for actors, it's much worse – to stand there in front of the public and do it". This almost-parental anxiety about every new outing for his offspring means that he has no further books in the pipeline: "At the moment, I don't have any plans to write anything ever again... If an idea falls into my head, I'll explore it." Surely, the force of creative gravity will deposit new fruit soon.
In the theatre, as in his fiction, Frayn attracts bouquets – and the odd brickbat – for his steely control of the machinery of art. Yet his first-night nerves serve as a reminder that he has always chosen to work in the form leaves both authors and actors most exposed: comedy. The mission to amuse leaves the laugh-seeker naked. Comedy has no court of appeal, no final arbiter. People find it funny, or they don't. That is "Both the curse and the consolation of comedy," thinks Frayn. "If people don't laugh, that's extremely painful. But if they do laugh, then that's a justification in itself... If people are sitting there quietly, are they moved internally? You never know. But with comedy, you do. By God, you do."
Readers will need a heart of Attic marble not to laugh along with Skios. From the moment that the Foundation's queen bee Nikki smugly surveys a domain that ticks along "like the works of a good watch, or nature itself", we know that Chaos and Catastrophe have booked their rooms. Frayn's writing career has roughly coincided with the rise and fall of Structuralism in art and thought, with its view of individual minds as cogs within the engine of language, culture or society. Some might claim that Frayn knew how to smash the Structuralist watch before the theorists began their deconstructive work. He sends fixed categories and oppositions into a spin to show that seemingly sovereign sets of laws answer to human desires. The Clockwise of an ordered world – to cite the Frayn-scripted film that led John Cleese's time-crazed headmaster a merry dance – requires a human touch to make it run.
"All plots," insists Frayn, "including farce plots, depend upon perception. People are not moved as by pieces of machinery. They see something happening and they understand it in a certain way... It does involve human understanding, and human invention too." This master of mechanics in fact writes as a champion of happenstance.
We can, and must, deviate from our paths of plot – even at talking-shops such as the shindig on Skios. "The only time I ever went to a writers' conference," Frayn recalls, "was in Sweden years and years ago. I thought it was such a ridiculous experience that I've never repeated it." A flock of distinguished authors ran out of things to say on topics such as "Language as a Home". "We got into such desperate straits that there were long silences." Finally, the German poet and critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger exercised his – and their – existential freedom. "He stood up and said, 'I suggest we end the formal part of the conference and all go out and walk about in the sunshine'." So they did.