What's all the farce about?

It's hard not to like anything that comes from the pen of Michael Frayn. The man who wrote Noises Off, one of the half-dozen most successful farces ever written, is one of those British polymaths who not only knows almost everything but can play every kind of writerly role: he's tried his hand as a comedian, as a translator of Chekhov, a man who catches the shadow of the spymasters, someone who can tinker with thrillers or play with poignancy.

His new book is a comical romp set on a Greek island and it plays on identity confusions of the most elementary kind with plenty of spirit and elegance and incidental winding comedy.

There's a conference to be held for the benefit of the more or less brainless super-rich on a Greek island. The British girl who's organising it for an American overlady succeeds in not greeting the lumbering, heavy-handed British academic who's supposed to be giving the talk but a charming blond professional conman who thinks why not play along with the lark for as long as it lasts, given the chance of novelty and a pretty girl.

Meanwhile the heavyweight and humourless academic is transplanted to the wrong villa and finds himself in the presence of the wrong young woman (though she - we're in the domain of novelistic farce here, remember - turns out to be a friend of the conference organiser).

Everything mad that can unfold - or some diverting fraction of it - does and the whole performance is rendered with the gloss and sophistication that comes from the fact that Michael Frayn is a real writer and therefore the quality of his prose and the humour of his tone are the real thing, not a dry, hard simulacra. It's fortunate because Skios is not an especially inventive example of the kind of champagne fiction it is.

Frayn can put together this kind of book of obvious comical mishaps falling off a log and it would be possible to see this one as a bit thin and facile if it were not, pretty manifestly, the work of a man of wit who doesn't have to try very hard to be funny.

You can't complain about a writer dealing in stereotypes when he can swerve away from them as suavely as Frayn does. Nor is there much point in getting on a high horse about a book as light as air that is designed to be easy to take.

In this rather beautifully crafted, offhand book, you get a very vivaciously heightened sense of the self-intoxicated young chancer, the hapless bumbling academic who yet retains his dignity through his ordeals, and the delightful dimwittedness of the girls who fail to stop everything going about as haywire as it can.

There are delicious little confusions between ''Skios'' and ''Skiers'', playing on the fact that the temperature is 33 degrees celcius (rather bad for snow sports). There are sheiks who get set on fire and blundering security guards who open fire.

There's a vision - it's a projection but still a vision - of the goddess Athena, white and radiant stamping snakes.

Oh yes, and there's the pathos of an unconfident man of middle years ''If you were the only girl in the world'' and falling in love with the moles on her shoulder.

You'll know at a sustained glance if Skios is your kind of poison. It's true that it all seems to take place in some 1970s of the male mind. But it's civilised, silly and full of snaps of reality in pursuit of the ridiculous.

What more do you want? Art? Life?

Skios
Michael Frayn
Faber, $29.99

The story What's all the farce about? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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