In Untold Stories, Alan Bennett describes Michael Frayn’s morning journey from home to office. The route takes him past Bennett’s window and the previous site of The Lady In The Van vehicle in Camden Town, to the office nearby where he writes, and it is here that I imagine Frayn mapping out the set of his new novel Skios: a sparkling Greek island of confused identity, misinterpretation and farcical upset which seems worlds away from this London home of the great writers.
When the notoriously charming Oliver Fox ventures into a Greek apartment holiday with a beautiful woman he picks up in a bar, and the world-reputable voice on ‘Scientific Management’, Dr Norman Wilfred, agrees to present a lecture at the annual Fred Toppler Foundation House Party, an unfortunate chain of misadventure results in a switch of identity, prompting disastrous, and hilarious consequences.
Anyone lucky enough to have seen Noises Off will instantly recognise Frayn’s superbly slick composition. But instead of shouting about sardines, the characters in Skios are more concerned with mushrooms. Plus there are two identical, balding and wart-ridden Greek taxi drivers, Stavros and Spiros; a perfectly-hypnotizing blond womanizer, happy to drop his own identity in a heartbeat; a series of trailing ex-girlfriends, admirers and flings; a yacht full of drunken and expensively-educated City-boys, one of who’s girlfriend, despite pretending she is in Switzerland, is actually having an affair on the island; and many conference guests with names such as Mr Popadopulou, Darling Erlunder and Sheikh Abdul hilal bin- Taimour bin Hamud bin- Ali al- Said. Keeping up?
It is, as usual, this wonderfully humorous collection of mismatched characters coming together that allows such a brilliantly explosive finale. One can easily imagine Julian Rhind-Tutt playing a perfectly captivating and suitably-ruffled Oliver Fox, and Oliver Chris, also of Greenwing fame, giving a fabulously funny performance as the ‘arseholed’, yacht-steering boyfriend Patrick.
Yet can farce work as well on the page as on the stage? Many would argue that it is difficult for literature to achieve the same level of laugh-out-loud comedy that the immediacy of theatrical performance guarantees. Famously-farcical productions such as Noises Off and One Man, Two Guvnors soar to success for exactly this reason – the confusion of characters, the slapstick and perfectly timed, or mistimed, entrances and exits, the speed of misunderstanding and the cause and effect sequence that follows, is visible, touchable. The sense that catastrophe is imminent whips the audience into a hysterical frenzy.
Skios is terrifically enjoyable but, maybe as a constraint of the genre (and not necessarily a negative one either), also presents itself as a lesson in farce; Frayn talks us through ‘the grand dénouement’ of his complex confusion like the calm before the storm. His assembly of ‘the great gear-chain of cause and effect’ weaves its way through the novel, each cause trailing an effect ‘at its heels like an obedient dog’. As a reader you feel the impression of Frayn’s thought-process on the page, you see his complex examination of comedy patterns; setting up probabilities and eventualities only to strike them down in a dramatically unexpected final twist.
Skios does seem farcically experimental. However, if anyone is going to experiment with written farce Frayn is the guy to do it. And it works. Skios is a dazzling little gem of a summer read, alluring and enchanting, and like everything else Frayn writes, bound to jump off the shelves.
Skios is avilalable now from Faber
Words: Lucy Holden