PROFILE / Seriously entertaining: The writer Michael Frayn is notable for his insoluble lucidity. Paul Taylor tries to sort it out

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'LET US not mince words,' crowed the critic of the Sunday Express, '(it) is the theatrical equivalent of the Titanic, the Hindenberg and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake rolled into one.' To what dread disaster can he have been referring? The violent second night of Playboy of the Western World? Any night, aesthetically speaking, of Starlight Express? Or perhaps these unminced words are the start of an eyewitness report on the burning-down of the Savoy?

They turn out to be none of these things, but preface a not unrepresentative review of Michael Frayn's last, ill-fated theatre-piece, Look Look (1990), a play that took the paradoxical step of putting a fictional audience on stage at the same time as virtually evacuating the Aldwych of real-life punters.

A companion piece to Noises Off, Frayn's successful farce-within-a-farce, Look Look, threw the spotlight on the other side of the theatrical equation, the auditorium, and bombed badly. There was one obvious extenuating factor. Unlike Noises Off, this comedy had come into the West End cold, even though exactly the sort of work that can only find its feet during a try out and with painful rewrites. The show closed after 27 nights, the author emerging from the fiasco with dignity via a ruefully honest piece in the Guardian.

Since then, a forgivable silence on the theatrical front. With fingers in such a wide range of pies, however, Frayn has no need to sit between plays twiddling his thumbs. Since his early success as a humorous columnist, this Cambridge-educated son of a deaf asbestos salesman has, after all, achieved distinction in fields as diverse as fiction, philosophy (in 1974, he published Constructions, a volume of Wittgensteinian apercus), film (including the screenplay of Clockwise), television drama (First and Last), documentaries and celebrated translations / adaptations from the Russian, among them Wild Honey, his splendid feat of emergency surgery on Chekhov's Platonov.

Indeed, the Look Look debacle happily coincided with the recovery by Frayn of his nerve and flair for novel writing, the long gap since the publication of Sweet Dreams (1973) having been triumphantly closed in 1989 by The Trick Of It. He'd complained that returning to the elastic limitlessness of fiction after the enabling constrictions of theatre was like living in the city for a long time and then being dumped in open countryside. There had been seven aborted efforts. But in the comeback book and his two subsequent novels - A Landing on the Sun and Now You Know - he cleverly got round his agoraphobia problem by choosing tight forms (the epistolary convention; a succession of monologues), the boxed- in feel creating a powerful foil to the chaos each story eventually uncovered.

The Trick Of It, for example, takes shape as a series of letters written by a youngish academic critic who first beds then marries the older novelist whose work he specialises in. Beginning jokily, the book gradually shifts to both a literal and an existential desert as the critic's resentful obsession with his wife's creativity becomes all-consuming. It is, in my view, Frayn's best novel.

Tonight, he dons his dramatist's hat again with the opening at the Donmar Warehouse, London, of his new play, Here. This event, and the fact that next month our author turns 60, prompt some general reflections on his prolific imagination. When you survey his many works, to what central preoccupations, cast of mind and tone of voice would you want to apply the term 'Fraynian'?

After the publicity blips on Look Look, there's an understandable pre-first night reticence about Here, but if there's one word that plunges you straight into Frayn country in the Donmar's terse brochure description, then it is 'construct'. 'Two people move into an empty room and begin to construct their life together.' As a noun, 'construct' yoked to 'elegant' crops up in reviews of Frayn's work almost as often as the phrase 'seriously amusing'. His plays and novels are models of deft, intricate assemblage, which is fitting since many of them focus on man's fight to build structures and impose his own ideas of order on a recalcitrant universe. In Here, it sounds as though this battle is being conducted on the micro-level - tiny but momentous decisions about the positioning of furniture that will determine the newly-weds' future. Reading about this punctillious prioritising in a barely furnished room, I was reminded of a remark in Frayn's Constructions: 'If we lived in a featureless desert we should learn to place the individual grains of sand in a moral or aesthetic hierarchy.'

More often, this preoccupation with the urge to arrange and categorise has led Frayn to examine organisations, whether it be the pitfalls of pigeon-holing demonstrated in the newspaper cuttings library in Alphabetical Order (1975), or the world of 'demountable' wall salesmen in Make and Break (1980), where the fact that selling has become an alternative religion to Garrard, the workaholic executive, is brought out in an hilarious dream sequence. The company's 'complete system' of walls and doors gets surreally entangled here with the elaborate intricacies of another system, Buddhism, espoused by a lovelorn secretary. Popping in and out of the doors on the firm's display stand, the salesmen deliver a spiel in which folding panels and the 'eightfold way', the 'four basic truths' and the four basic walls become dazingly confused, recalling Garrard's earlier response when briefed about Buddhism: 'Twelve spokes of this. Three wheels of that. Sounds like a building contract.'

What is distinctly Fraynian, though, is the fact that the irreverent fun of this comparison works sympathetically, discouraging a simple sneer at the consuming passions of business. Alan Ayckbourn, whose plays crawl with control freaks, DIY obsessives, hygiene fanatics, may acknowledge the human cost of these compulsions, but can only see the negative aspects of the rage for order. Frayn, keenly conscious of the interdependence of order and disorder and the necessary pendulum swings between them, is much more equivocal.

There is, as a result, a perversely admirable streak in his tyrants. Unforgettably, Leonard Rossiter brought out an almost tragic dimension in Garrard as he fought to fathom what it was about Buddhism or Beethoven that he was not equipped to appreciate. Frayn's art leaves you not knowing quite where you stand on this character, or on, say, the efficient new- broom librarian in Alphabetical Order. In one light, she is a humourless prig and, though a dab hand with files, a hamfisted categoriser of human beings; in another, she is the galvanising force that could save the paper from closure. The characteristic effect, as the critic John Simon finely described it, is one of 'insoluble lucidity'.

The young man in the new play, it's rumoured, spends a lot of time philosophising over each tiny decision. Philosophy has always been important to Frayn's work but, again, it enters his art idiosyncratically. In his Guardian column, he once wrote a brilliantly funny parody of Wittgenstein's later manner - full of exclamatory wondering out loud, impatient dialogue with an implied interlocuter - trained on to the tricky metaphysical problems posed by roadsigns in a fog. It's hard to imagine, though, Frayn wanting to come up with a play like Dogg's Hamlet by Tom Stoppard which, in aiming to teach the audience from scratch the lingo the play is written in, amounts to a potted practical demonstration of Wittgenstein's conception of a language game.

It's characteristic of Stoppard that he strives to dramatise recondite ideas, whereas one of Frayn's great flairs is for showing how philosophical issues bubble under the surface of the most everyday events. Take this bit from Make and Break. The salesmen have just knocked off from a hard day at a Frankfurt trade fair. 'Inert European flaxboard. I'll be saying it in my sleep,' one of them remarks, his colleagues chiming in with a rueful repetition of the phrase. 'I tell you what, though,' another comments, 'it's lovely just sitting here and saying it and not meaning it.' A nicely observed, perfectly true-to-life moment, but think of the meal a philosopher could make out of what this chap means by 'meaning'.

'A total lack of pretentiousness' is a key part of Frayn's charm, argues Michael Blakemore, the director of several of his hits and of the new play. Even when it opens out on to a vista of bleakness or breakdown, his work retains its lightness of touch; it's always deceptively profound, even when it is examining fundamentals. He is, according to Blakemore, a man of 'passionate moderation - extremely wary of extremes'. Not surprising, then, that a strain of anti-utopian satire runs through his oeuvre and that ideas of heaven come in for a regular comic drubbing. Frayn, in some ways the classic liberal ('To be perfectly honest, what I feel bad about is that I don't feel worse . . .') knows that anything taken to the limit is dangerous, even liberalism.

That's why Sweet Dreams (1973), which imagines heaven as a cross between Cambridge and NW1 with God a shy scholar of good family ('One is who one is') should sound in its smugness as endlessly insufferable as any hell. ' 'This is our task,' says Howard (God's planning assistant), as he carves the gigot aux haricots, 'to provide the harsh materials on which men's imaginations can be exercised and to offer, through the cultured and civilised life that we ourselves lead here in the metropolis, some intimation of the world they might envisage.' 'Meanwhile,' murmurs Miriam Bernstein, 'here we all sit waiting for second helpings.' '

Problems with Frayn's plays arise only when he reverses his characteristic practice and subordinates action to idea. As he himself has admitted, the much-rewritten Balmoral was always a non-starter because the striking concept - that the communist revolution has taken place here and that capitalist journalists are despatched here from Russia to send back a report on a Stalinist writers' commune in Balmoral - was abstract to a degree that robbed the play of the initial believable reality that is the basis for farce. But Frayn's fancy has always been drawn to such mirror situations and they have tended to work best when solidly rooted in realism, like those thrown up by the journalists' trip to Castro's Cuba in Clouds or the critic's disastrous effort to join his creative wife on the other side of the reflecting glass that separates those who have The Trick Of It from those who haven't.

Being a chamber-piece, Here is less likely to run into the difficulties of Look Look. It will be interesting, though, to see whether any of the qualities evident in his most recent novels have rubbed off on this work, for as Michael Codron, his long-standing producer, argues, they reveal an author much more willing to write about love and sex - to say nothing of the disintegration of personality that two of them hauntingly trace. It would be good to find that, like Frayn the novelist, Frayn the dramatist has rediscovered the trick of it.

'Here' opens tonight at the Donmar Warehouse (Booking: 071-867 1150).

(Photograph omitted)