As the recent productions of Spring Storm and Beyond The Horizon show, first works by well known authors often give a fascinating insight into how a writers own distinctive voices developed. The Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds production of Michael Frayn’s first published play, The Two Of Us, also shows a writer finding his voice for the stage, but unlike Williams or O’Neill we are given four plays for the price of one. In many ways it is the theatrical equivalent of a restaurants tasting menu, four courses catering for a variety of tastes.
As the title suggests, these are two hander’s, each looking at a different couple; a young married couple with their firstborn; a morning after the party encounter; the couple who have drifted apart and the couple trying to cope with the dinner party from hell.Some of these playlets are more successful than others, or perhaps have aged better.
Silver and Black which sees a young couple return to their Venetian honeymoon hotel, but this time with their small baby, has some witty one-liners that we would expect from Frayn but never reaches a satisfactory climax. The second piece, The New Quixote, is more successful. Here we get offered an insight into the morning after the night before, when an older woman wakes up to find the young man she met at a party the night before moving in. Here we get to see the exploration of the bizarre twists people get themselves into that Frayn has become synonymous with. Rounding up the first act is another less successful offering, Mr Foot, in which a long suffering wife fails to get through to her uncommunicative husband.
It is however the second act that redeems the evening. The Theatre Royal has in a way secured a World Premiere here. When originally staged in 1970 political correctness was a different beast than it is today and the title of the fourth play is perhaps not acceptable for modern audiences. Michael Frayn has amended the script slightly for the Theatre Royal and given it a new title Gnomes. Canny audiences may be able to guess what the original title was! Here we see the Fryan we have come to know. A couple host the dinner party from hell, trying to keep various groups of guests from discovering the other guests are at the dinner party. It is classic farce fare and one that Fryan pulls off with aplom. Two actors play multiple characters in a symphony of soup, doors and bicycle clips. The format may remind audiences of his later Noises Off, a play that was inspired by this piece when the author realised that the action backstage was more exciting than that onstage.
Abigail Anderson’s production sticks firmly to the 1970s with a simple but adaptable set, ideal for touring to the small communities the show will be visiting over the next couple of months. Alys Torrance and Simon Nock have great fun playing the multitude of characters that Fryan has created, especially in the final piece.
This is a piece worth sticking with, the first act may not show the writer at his best and on its own would be questionable as to the merit of revival but the second act Gnomes validates the evening as an examination of the development of a writer. This production will be touring to halls across East Anglia until October and is sure to brighten up a chill autumn evening.