Faber £15.99

Skios, By Michael Frayn

The 'Noises Off' writer puts a chubby lecturer slap in the middle of a classical, saucy, bedroom-door-slamming farce

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits