'Rock 'N' Roll' review – this empathetic Tom Stoppard revival strikes the heart as well as the head

Read our four-star review of Rock 'N' Roll, starring Nathaniel Parker and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, now in performances at the Hampstead Theatre to 27 January.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

A fond “ahoj” to Rock ‘N’ Roll, the 2006 Tom Stoppard play that makes frequent use of the Czech word for “hello” – as befits a drama which shuttles back and forth between Cambridge and Prague across 22 years.

First seen at the Royal Court, prior to West End and Broadway transfers, the discursive, deeply touching play is now receiving its first London revival in an auditorium more commonly given over to new writing, and Nina Raine’s Hampstead Theatre reappraisal has a quieter, stealthier power than director Trevor Nunn’s comparatively boisterous premiere.

As always with this writer, Rock ‘n’ Roll demands, and rewards, an audience’s attention, especially in a potentially bitty-seeming first half that at times seems like a blueprint for a screen version of itself. (In fact, one can readily imagine a celluloid adaptation of this play – which isn’t necessarily true of Stoppard.)

We begin in 1968 Cambridge, where the Czech writer and academic Jan (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) is preparing to return to his homeland, taking with him his treasured collection of vinyl, not to mention the fond wishes of a teenage flower child, Esme (Phoebe Horn), whose older self will come back into Jan’s life in time for the story’s affecting finish.

The meat of the play is the intersection – and sometimes the sharp bifurcation – between the personal and the political at a time and place in history when one’s very choice of music can itself seem seditious.

The seeds of activism are put under the microscope, alongside the price paid for that same engagement: Jan himself does time in prison, which seems difficult to reconcile with the sweet-faced eternal student proffered by the likeable Fortune-Lloyd.

As ever with Stoppard, abstractions and braininess run rife: topics on offer range from heroism, reason and consciousness, and both Sappho and Plutarch are quite literally brought to the table at different times.

But the play, and Raine’s empathic production of it, thrum all the while with a pulsing humanity that views each character from within, no matter how fully given over they may be to causes and verbal quips, many of the latter devoted to the workings of journalism – Stoppard’s onetime profession back in the day: I love the appraisal of newspapers as “human nature in print”.

That is one of many truths voiced by Nathaniel Parker’s charismatic Max, Jan’s Marxist professor and an unrepentant revolutionary who bangs on about the end of history and a political reality that finds no one worth his vote. (The reform-minded Alexander Dubček is as important to the workings of this play as are such better-known names as Vaclav Havel and, yes, Thatcher.)

But Max turns out to be as subject to human frailty and fallibility as is his ailing wife, Eleanor, a Greek scholar at rending odds with a body busily telling her “I’m nothing without it”, who won’t be defined by terminal illness.

The ever-invaluable Nancy Carroll is splendid in that part, as she is after the interval playing the more mature version of her own daughter, Esme. Only this time round did I clock an affinity between Septimus and Thomasina in Stoppard’s abiding masterwork, Arcadia, and the shifting interplay between Jan and the smitten Esme in this play.

Some theatregoers may feel research is required, whether into the Plastic People of the Universe, the Czech rock band whose influence courses throughout, or that onetime Cambridge denizen and Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett, whose plaintive “Golden Hair” is heard at the show’s start in the mysteriously beguiling form of Brenock O’Connor’s unnamed Piper.

But, equally, Rock ‘N’ Roll invites you to succumb to the innate musicality of the material, which exerts its own grip well before the company is seen rocking out collectively to the Rolling Stones. “I don’t care,” Esme says repeatedly in the play’s heady final moments, but it’s to the show’s credit that we very much do.

Rock 'N' Roll is at the Hampstead Theatre through 27 January. Book Rock 'N' Roll tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Rock 'N' Roll (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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