After a little misunderstanding A.S.H. SMYTH talks to Michael Frayn about a stage adaptation of Spies

Frayn: You haven't come to fix the door handles, have you?

Smyth to audience: I must admit I did not see that coming. But since it is evidently not a rhetorical question . . .

Smyth to Frayn: No.

Laughter from audience. (Canned, if necessary.) Well, I can give it a shot; but I wouldn't hold your breath.

Frayn: claps hand to forehead and gives a look that seems to say "I just know you're going to put this in your piece . . ."

Michael Frayn is no stranger to the comedy of errors. His CV boasts a humour column in the Guardian, a string of critically-acclaimed, smart novels, and the West End successes of Noises Off, Donkey's Years and Alarms & Excursions.

He has probably imagined every conceivable absurd scenario.

Even so, on this cold January afternoon, I suspect we're taking things a bit far.

It's the wrong day, for starters. I'm here to interview Frayn about the stage adaptation of his novel Spies (Whitbread Novel of the Year 2002). But he thinks it is tomorrow, or that I should be tomorrow, or something equally semantically awkward. He was expecting the man who fixes door handles.

So we'll have tea, he'll grab a quick shower, and then we'll conclude the interview al fresco, on the towpath back to town? Fine by me.

Set in Ewell, Surrey, during the Second World War, Spies tells the story of 11-year-old Stephen Wheatley and his friend Keith Hayward. Or, more importantly, it tells the story of Stefan, an old man, literally and mentally revisiting his childhood - specifically the episode sparked by Keith's off-the-cuff brag: "My mother is a German spy."

Though Spies is hardly autobiographical, during the war (in Ewell) an imaginative friend of Frayn's did indeed tell him that his mother was a German spy and they began to investigate her activities.

"We followed her around for a couple of hours and she didn't, in that time, get in touch with the German High Command . . . So we got bored and gave up."

In Frayn's life, then, the ill-fated six random words' caused far less trouble than in young Stephen's. But what if they'd taken it seriously, Frayn wondered . . . what would they have made of the ambiguous minutiae of a Mrs Hayward's life? A complete mess, Spies suggests, the boys hopelessly entangling themselves in the adult snares of embarrassing revelations and painful truths.

"So," I ask, "what's it like returning to a work you finished seven years ago?"

"Well, I haven't, really."

"Right. Work continually in progress, that sort of thing?"

"I mean, I've written a screenplay of it, which we're still trying to set up as a film . . ."

In movies this moment is traditionally represented by the sound of ice cracking under someone's feet.

"And the play adaptation . . ?"

"I had absolutely nothing to do with the play adaptation."

Oh, gawd.

I suppose this has to happen at some stage in every journalist's life. I was just rather hoping it would happen, well, some other time. To some other journalist.

So much for Spies, then. Instead, we stroll along the river, chatting about other things: the novel he did put on stage (Now You Know); the fact that he's just bought a Mac; the helicopter-proof architecture of the MI6 building (well, that's sort of about spies . . .) Later, I request a copy of the play-script, then call Daniel Jamieson, the man who did adapt Spies.

Jamieson writes and adapts for Theatre Alibi, co-producers of Spies with the Oxford Playhouse, where it will be premiered before going on a three-month national tour.

"It's grist to Alibi's mill to tackle things you can't imagine being set on stage," Jamieson tells me. (In fact, he muses, didn't Frayn specifically decide that Spies ought not to be a play? No matter.) Unintimidated by traditions, they may be; but Jamieson freely admits that Spies wasn't easy to adapt.

"In more clumsy novels you can cut away vast chunks," said Jamieson - not so with Frayn's layered and significant, detailed writing.

Spies is also awkwardly multi-locational, so James Cotterill has designed a fast-moving set, largely manipulated by the six actors, whereby, in a "doll's-house effect", the walls appear and dissolve as the focus switches from Stefan as observer to Stephen as participant.

Live music - by Tom Johnson - for cello and accordion "works as a metaphor of how the senses evoke memories", filling in the gap that might - must - be left by Frayn's intricate discussion of smells and recollections.

And the two-hour show is essentially one act (interval notwithstanding), "with movements . . . but not broken up in a very conventional way". Irregular, then, like Stefan's memory.

Jamieson doesn't seek authorial participation: "It's a funny thing to co-opt them into helping." Doubtless even more so with an eminent playwright.

Frayn told me, emphatically: "In the screenplay I've cut the old guy out completely. It'd be a very boring film with some guy walking around the streets thinking this and thinking that."

But Jamieson argues the narrator "can give us access to things you'd have no way of knowing, at the moment". On stage, Stefan is the first character you'll see.

Jamieson is a little nervous about the author's opening-night reactions. Nervous, but keen to see what happens.

I'm sure the same is true of Michael Frayn, but I don't dare ask. I never did fix that door handle.

Spies is at Oxford Playhouse from February 22-March 1. Tickets, costing £10 upwards, are available from the box office at 01865 305305 or Michael Frayn will be in conversation at the theatre on Friday, February 29, at 5pm. Tickets are available from the box office.