The Menier Chocolate Factory is on a winning streak, with The Color Purple on Broadway, Funny Girl just finishing a West End run and soon to embark on a UK national star with star Sheridan Smith reprising her performance in the title role at many (but not all) of its touring dates, and a recent West End transfer, too, for The Truth. I suspect this smart, handsome revival of Tom Stoppard's intellectual firework of a play, first produced by the RSC in 1974 and last seen on the London stage in a major RSC revival in 1993, may be West End bound, too, given its casting and production pedigree. The entire run at the Menier has sold out in advance of its reviews, so the demand may well be there; but I'm have to admit that I'm sure what to make of the play, or indeed what it is all about.
There's certainly a lot of verbal showing off, and an absurdist delight in the collision of real-life characters -- James Joyce, Lenin, Tristan Tzara and a minor consular official Henry Carr -- who all find themselves in Zurich in 1917. This much is based on fact, as is the appearance of Carr and Joyce in an amateur performance of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
From this, Stoppard spins a giddy theatrical vaudeville that's like a succession of student sketches strung together as the fight over ideas on art, literature, politics and posturing.
It's never dull, but it is does sometimes feel impossible to follow. Still, with actors of the calibre of Tom Hollander, Freddie Fox, Peter McDonald and Forbes Masson leading the debates, it is also sometimes fun and surprising, too. Set in a library strewn with documents embedded into the floor, beautifully designed by Tim Hatley with the audience seated on two sides of it, it a lot of resources have been thrown at it by director Patrick Marber; but I did tire of the relentless verbal assault eventually.
What the Press Said...
"There are times when the action is suspended while Stoppard heaves information at us, especially about Marxist theory or Lenin’s famous train journey to Russia, but this remains an enduring, life-enhancing play that brims with intellectual gaiety."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Marber’s ace production revels in the play’s riotous plenty – though with rigorous discipline and no hint of a cast enjoying themselves more than the public. A travesty of justice if it does not transfer to the West End."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Tom Hollander is hilarious in this mind-bogglingly entertaining Stoppard revival."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph