Michael Frayn’s 80th birthday is being celebrated by BBC radio with a mini-season of his work, featuring a new version of his play Copenhagen and adaptation of his novels Skios and Headlong. First up was Skios, a farcical tale somewhat in the vein of Noises Off and something really quite funny indeed. The tale itself, of mistaken identities, fake professors and frustrated lovers, is mostly entertaining if not quite as masterfully complex as his other work, but what really lifts this dramatisation by Archie Scottney is the kind of dream comic casting one would pay through the nose to see in a theatre.
Tom Hollander plays Oliver Fox, who is going on an ill-advised romantic break to Greece with a woman he has just met. When he is taken for someone else at arrivals, he soon finds himself installed in the warm embrace of the Toppler Foundation who believe that he is Dr Norman Wilfred, the keynote speaker at their conference on Scientometrics and has his every need attended to by super-efficient PA Nikki Hook, Lisa Dillon in sparklingly funny form, who finds herself rather taken by him. Meanwhile, the real Dr Wilfred, a bumbling High Bonneville, also finds himself the victim of misidentification as he ends up in the remote Greek villa where Oliver was meant to be going and where his would-be girlfriend is still headed, the glorious Janie Dee starring as the unawares Georgie.
And when it is some combination of these four dominating the action, Skios is excellent. Playful, witty, smart in its puncturing of the pretensions of the world of high culture and astute in the lightness with which it wears the concept. It’s not perfect though, too much of the characterisation of the foreigners in the story is lazily drawn and erring on the stereotypical and it never quite explodes into the raucous humour one might have expected. Still an engaging listen though.
To the uninitiated, Frayn’s play Copenhagen might seem a big ask. A weighty exploration of both scientific theory and practice as it embraces elements such as the uncertainty principle and nuclear fission in trying to ascertain exactly what happened in the 1941 meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. But as someone says at one point, “it’s physics…it’s also politics” and so much more beside in this vividly expressionistic tale of professional ethics, personal relationships and scientific discovery.
I saw the play in Sheffield last year and whilst I enjoyed it, it was undoubtedly a challenging watch that demanded more of my attention than my sleepy matinee head was able to offer. And so it felt better suited to radio for me, I could pick a time when I could devote my attention fully to it, there were no issues of being too far away (it’s not a play to see from the balcony) and in this new version for Radio 4, it boasted a luxurious cast of Simon Russell Beale, Benedict Cumberbatch and Greta Scacchi who delivered it beautifully.
The story plays out in the afterlife as Bohr and Heisenberg meet up to discuss what actually happened when they came together in Copenhagen and watched over by Bohr’s wife Margrethe, the uncertainties around their meeting are hashed and rehashed as the two men counter varying analyses of what passed, probing their meeting for its ultimate meaning , if indeed it can ever be reached. And even the more scientific side of thing is more engaging than one might assume as it is entwined with the morality of exploring nuclear power, in the knowledge that it could be abused.
And last up was the adaptation by Robin Brooks of the novel Headlong. Perhaps Frayn fatigue had set in by this point as I found much the less engaging of these radio plays with its satire on the art world a gentler piece of work, the inclusion of a narrative voice one of those things I generally don’t like in my radio drama and the whole affair a bit muted despite the presence of such luminaries as Gina McKee and Toby Jones in the cast.