The choice for the first theatre visit after the summer hiatus was spot on. The genius that is Tom Stoppard wrote Travesties in 1974 and this revival, directed by that other excellent playwright, Patrick Marber, is a humorous delight, with some dance and song thrown in for good measure.
Everything works in this production’s favour, which, of course, isn’t a coincidence. Each individual member of the cast is excellent and work beautifully as an ensemble, the set by Tim Hatley is spot on, the direction perfect and the intimacy of The Menier Chocolate Factory a massive plus.
Tom Stoppard’s plays begin by bewildering the audience and Travesties is an excellent example. In fact one is perplexed about many aspects of the plot right up until the end. But because of the playwright’s intellect and beautiful use of language this is not a problem. The play begins with a short prologue, when the main character, Henry Carr, is an old man. It then goes back to World War One when he first lived in Zurich. In town at various times during this period are Lenin, James Joyce and the Dada-ist Tristan Tzara and the play proceeds to tie in all four men. The character of Henry Carr is also based on a real person, although his recollections of his dealings with his more famous contemparies have altered somewhat in the intervening years. One constant, however, is the fact that Carr was involved in James Joyce’s amateur production of The Importance of Being Ernest, by playing the part of Algernon. Also true is the fact that Carr subsequently sued Joyce for the cost of a pair of trousers! Thus the play moves in and out of the dialogue and action of Wilde’s famous work and combines pastiche, political history, artistic argument, time shifts and, most importantly, reminiscences.
Stoppard’s genius with language is there for all to see in this rarely performed play. An entire scene is enacted in limerick form, various exchanges take place in Russian, there is farce and nonsense aplenty and yet there is also emotional substance. No wonder that this extraordinary knight is revered.
Patrick Marber ensures that the pace never slackens, whilst the skill of each and every cast member makes certain that the audience, although possibly finding it difficult to keep up at times, are always up for doing so.
Words cannot do full justice to everyone involved. Whether Tom Hollander is Carr in his totteringly old age or as the dapper younger man, he is hilarious in delivery and physicality. But this most likeable of actors is no one trick pony, switching to a palpable sadness when the mood of the play changes, albeit fleetingly. Freddie Fox also shines as the flamboyantly, arrogant Tzara, whilst Peter McDonald’s Joyce is alternately moving and comic.
Clare Foster’s, Cecily and Amy Morgan’s Gwendolen (yes another allusion to Wilde) are brilliant, especially when they have a squabble a la tea party scene in “Ernest” which is sung as a “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean” duet.
I think what I’m trying to say is that Travesties is an absolute delight. It would be a travesty to miss it.