Reviewed by Serena Murfitt
There is a somewhat delicious irony when an evening of performance billed as ‘a look at society’s torturous relationship with modern technology’ is beset by technical issues from the outset, but this shouldn’t take anything away from the performers (Shereener Browne, Lauren Drennan, Dan Gaisford and David Hubball) who ploughed bravely on through sometimes spectacularly loud interference from the malfunctioning sound system – which finally gave up the ghost shortly after curtain up on the second half – to deliver this evening’s performance of ‘Alarms and Excursions’ at the Greenwich Theatre. At least the curtain DID indeed come up: I attended a production of Young Frankenstein at The Garrick Theatre a few years ago when the safety curtain resolutely refused to rise after the interval and the audience were sent home, technical gremlins not just finding their homes in off West End venues.
I suspect you couldn’t have picked a better marketing ploy for the evening if you’d tried, although the loud beeps from the Stewards’ ticket scanners came a close second and did leave me wondering if they had been turned up to full volume purposely to set the scene for the first of writer Michael Frayn’s plays – Alarms – which saw the cast and audience bombarded with noise from a variety of domestic appliances. Interestingly, some of the sounds that the characters on stage were finding annoying, I found myself almost tuning out as ‘white noise’. Such perhaps is the gap between the 1990s when the play was written and when these devices were still rather new, and the 2020s when we have come to accept them as commonplace and taught ourselves to largely ignore the sounds they produce. What the play did rather wonderfully though was to highlight just how much time we spend managing what is supposedly time-saving technology. In this respect I must give special mention to Gaisford who I am sure easily cleared his 10,000 steps dashing around the stage multiple times in this sketch.
Having had my attention drawn to the beeps and buzzes of technology, it was almost a relief when the majority of tonight’s plays actually veered away from the topic and into the more comfortable (uncomfortable?) areas of societal conformity, relationships and misunderstandings. Being familiar in my regular work with the whole corporate function set up, I found Toasters absolutely hysterical. The balancing act performed by the actors of notes, drink and food, and the repeated flipping between pages of a report was spot on and at times reminded me – for those of you old enough to remember – of the children’s programme Crackerjack which saw young contestants being piled up with prizes and cabbages (don’t ask), with them winning those that remained in their arms when the competition ended. The facial expressions of Hubball, Browne and Drennan throughout the skit were an absolute joy.
Whereas Toasters had been snappy and made me laugh out loud, I found Doubles rather excruciating in comparison. Perhaps the idea of being boxed up in a hotel room the same as multiple other hotel rooms was a rather too claustrophobic image for me, and finding yourself worrying about what those in the next door ‘box’ can hear whilst at the same time eavesdropping on them also causes some anxiety in a world where we often exist confined to blocks of flats, shared offices, and commutes on packed trains, without the luxury of distance from others. Again, this may have highlighted the differences between when the play was written and where we are now, with space so much more at a premium and many more people unable to afford the luxury of personal space. I also felt that the play ran on too long and could have benefitted from an earlier conclusion rather than repeating what seemed like the same ground on a second day.
Having experienced a delay of half an hour at the start of the evening, a second spate of issues with the sound system meant that Act Two went ahead largely without this errant technology and with one play being skipped for timing reasons. It also resulted in a final irony of having humans replace tech, with the announcement that a crew member would be on stage generating the sound effects for the final play of the night – Immobiles – which would in fact be a return to the theme of the evening: modern technology. To be honest I’m a great fan of drawing away the curtain between cast, crew and audience – the so-called ‘fourth wall’ – anyway, so this actually came as more of a treat than a hindrance, and enforced my happy status as an old luddite.
All in all, an interesting evening of gentle humour if not out and out belly laughs at Greenwich Theatre, although not perhaps in the manner which director James Haddrell had originally envisioned! I rather think that gentleman would be entitled to list himself as part of the cast after his occasional forays onto the stage to offer explanations as to what was happening with the sound system. The big take away from the night would be though, that if cast and crew can still work to bring to the audience an evening of enjoyable entertainment even when facing some pretty big issues, imagine how good it would be when the band aids have been applied and everything is working correctly again.