Michael Frayn's play Noises Off is sometimes described as a farce about a farce. Well by that judgement, his new novel Skios is a step backwards. It's simply a farce. A rattling paced and amusing one, but a routine, identity-mistaking, bedroom-door-slamming, bed-hopper none the less.
Perhaps a more complementary reference point for this novel than his work in the theatre would be Frayn's screenplay to the 1986 John Cleese comedy Clockwise. In that film, Cleese's haphazard, watch-watching headmaster, Brian Stimpson, is beset with a litany of pratfalls and hurdles on his way to accepting the Chair at the national Headmasters' Conference. In Skios, Frayn has poshed it up a little, and has his put-upon hero Dr Norman Wilfred slip up on the banana skins of the genre on his way to the luxuriously flora-clad titular Greek island, where he is set to give the annual lecture at the Fred Toppler Foundation: a vaguely intellectual, industry-linked institution which prides itself on its esteemed guest speakers. It doesn't take long for it all to go wrong for the beleaguered, thickset and middle-aged lecturer.
A whistle-stop tour of the plot takes in an exhausting tick list of misinterpretations, unlikely connections, saucy situations and dubious psychology. Norman has his bag and his identity taken at the island's airport by the feckless Oliver Fox, a young, good-looking playboy who seems to model himself on Hugh Grant at his most annoying. He's all mop-top tousled hair and whoops-a-daisy smile.
Oliver is on the island to enjoy a fling behind his girlfriend's back with Georgie, a character who proves little more than an excuse for the discussion of "great fat boobs" and the application of suntan lotion. Georgie is friends with Nikki, the clean-cut personal assistant to Mrs Fred Toppler and supposed baby sitter of Norman.
Are you still with me? Well Oliver likes Norman's name and the look of Nikki at the arrivals' lounge, so takes on the guise of the chubby "scientometrics" expert. No problem there, naturally. And then by some awful twist of linguistic fate, Norman ends up in Oliver's villa with Georgie. Cue suntan lotion.
Of course, the storyline has all the bottom-slapping subtlety of 'Allo 'Allo, and yet Frayn's keen ear for dialogue and acute understanding of twisted internal reasoning pulls it back from the end of the pier. The global lecture circuit is an arena ripe for satire and Frayn doesn't miss a trick. Norman is weary of traipsing his tired lecture around the world, regaling listeners with the "scientific management of science" to "the Something Centre. Or the Something Institute. The Something Something. The Something Something for the Something of Something". Frayn highlights the lack of substance in the rolling business of first-class flights, free champagne and babbling sycophants.
"How endlessly uncertain life was!" muses Oliver in one of his more profound moments. "Things might be like this, or might be like that, or might be like nothing anyone could imagine – and it all depended upon the endlessly shifting sands of who was who and when they were and where." In his quest for Nikki, Oliver frequently forgets that he isn't actually Norman, and in a fractured structure that often hoodwinks the reader by its variety of narrative voices, the notion of identity is examined with intelligence, albeit for comic ends.
Norman is likeable enough, pining for the two little moles on Georgie's lotioned left shoulder blade and weary of the endless world of praise, chauffeured cars and expense accounts for which his acumen has ultimately cashed in. And Oliver is given some funny self-deluded observations: on receiving five irate texts from his girlfriend his only thought is that "she seemed to be softening somewhat. She was forgiving him for having allowed her to throw him out". Yet, the lack of a singular voice is the book's shortfall; it dilutes the personal impact of the misstep and gaffes.
Skios attempts to reach the high comedy that Kingsley Amis managed with Lucky Jim. However, reading this slim novel is a little like watching the kind of Christmas TV special that we find hilarious on Boxing Day when our critical faculties are worn down by cold turkey and advocaat. The accumulated improbabilities stack up like a quivering house of cards, castled for laughs but ultimately lacking in emotional foundations. But then, that's farce for you. Enjoying a book like this is an exercise in self-delusion itself. If you suspend your disbelief at the title page you'll no doubt chuckle along to the end, but somehow that doesn't seem to be enough of a result from a writer of Frayn's standing. Nevertheless, Skios should sell a bundle at the check-out counters at Luton and Stansted this summer to readers heading out to the tavernas and pool loungers.