Hard on the heels of the ecstatically received London revival of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (currently playing at the Novello Theatre) comes this hilarious novel. It’s not easy to pull off farce on the printed page when so many of the laughs of the genre generally depend upon physical comedy. In Noises Off, for example, one character hops about the stage like a demented kangaroo, his shoelaces tied together. But just as a filthy joke is made funnier when told by an apparently po-faced academic, so a really silly plot is enlivened when composed by a highly clever author.
Frayn is that man. In the hands of someone less accomplished, the events in Skios would be too improbable, its characterisation too thin, its reliance on that old trope, mistaken identity, just too plain daft. As it is, you can sit back and let the book lap over you like the warm waters surrounding the imaginary Greek isle of the title.
This is perfect holiday reading, funny and light. The novel’s only flaw is that the story takes a few chapters to get going. Indeed, I began to wonder if we’d ever get out of the airport. But of course the whole point of farce is that everything which possibly could go wrong must go wrong. And things can’t go wrong convincingly unless we first establish what should have been happening had everything gone to plan. Setting up the house of cards takes time and patience, while watching it tumble is quick
A woman who runs what amounts to a luxury cultural holiday camp on the island goes to collect her keynote speaker from his plane. The keynote speaker, pompous and very probably a bit of a bore, lands and goes to the luggage carousel. Meanwhile, an opportunistic chap called Oliver Fox arrives on Skios for a week of slap and tickle in a borrowed villa with a girl he’s met once, for five minutes, in a London bar. Only she fails to turn up at the airport. Fox picks up the keynote speaker’s suitcase and, on a whim, allows the woman from the cultural foundation to pick him up. Delivering a speech may be tricky, but there’s free booze and the chance of a snog, so what the hell? The keynote speaker, meanwhile, gets driven to the empty villa. But the villa isn’t empty after all. The girl from the bar in London has managed to get herself there and is sound asleep in a pitch-dark room where, needless to say, the keynote speaker soon joins her.
The resulting chaos is extremely good fun. Farce depends upon skilfully exploited situation and not on character, but Frayn has a genius for creating believable people out of the most meagre of details. About Oliver Fox we learn only that he has a lopsided smile and a mop of blond hair: at first I pictured the Mayor of London, but his adroitness at sustained deception made that seem improbable, so I replaced him with the comic actor Owen Wilson, lately of the charming Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris. When Hollywood comes to cast the movie which will surely be made from this novel, they might like to screen test them both.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 14, 2012Tags: Book review, Comedy, Fiction, Novel