Shakespeare and Stoppard – two theatrical geniuses who used/use language, character and complex narrative to shape works of art which shook the world when first written and still shake it now. Travesties is the kind of masterpiece which some people find too taxing; and it’s true that attention must be paid. But if it is, glorious, wonderful and fairly undiluted joy is the reward. And with Patrick Marber at the helm, it dazzles and dances like it never has before. Very close to perfection in theatrical endeavour.

Travesties

The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre has a long and illustrious history of reviving musicals to great acclaim. Indeed, some of the best revivals in the last decade have originated there. However, the track record there in relation to revivals of plays has been less impressive – really, the only revival in the last ten years that has been truly notable was the revival of Patrick Marber’s marvellous play, Dealer’s Choice in 2007.

Until now.

Currently playing at the small Southwark venue is Patrick Marber’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 masterpiece – Travesties. It is a triumph, and not just a triumph, but a dazzling, diverting and delicious one.

Interestingly, these two productions have one thing in common – Marber. He wrote Dealer’s Choice and here he directs, boldly, brightly and brilliantly. Without doubt, this production is one of the most insightful, luminous and intellectually irresistible efforts from a director in London this year.

Marber makes no attempt to force a directorial conceit upon Stoppard’s play; nor does he try to make the play “relevant” or “modern” or anything else that is “current”. Yes, there is one instance of colour-blind casting but it is an exemplar in that department – it works splendidly, adding to the joys of the production, not detracting from them in any way.

TravestiesNo. What Marber does here is what every director should do: he finds the best way to illuminate the text and to shine a very clear, utterly compelling, light into every corner, so that all of the glorious possibilities are released – like butterflies at a wedding; colourful, natural and irrepressibly joyous.

Stoppard’s play riffs on real life events. Henry Carr was stationed at the British Consulate in Zurich during the First World War. Also in Zurich at that time were James Joyce, Irish novelist and author of Ulysses; Lenin, prior to his ascension to power in Russia; and Tristan Tzara, who would be instrumental in the rise of the Dada movement through the establishment of Cabaret Voltaire.

Using these characters as anchors, Stoppard fashions a high comedy with a serious purpose. He explores questions fundamental to art and artists – what makes art work? What is art? Can Art appeal to different classes without compromising its integrity? Can Art eat and transform other examples of Art? And, if it does, is it really Art?

These all sound like arid topics more suited to a University doctorate paper rather than flesh-and-blood theatre, but in Stoppard’s hands – and words – it becomes a completely engrossing, thrilling and intoxicating ride.

Taking a leaf out of Joyce’s book, Stoppard uses Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest as a framework – plot, dialogue, characters – and bends it to his comic and satirical will. Tossed through are snatches of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Gilbert and Sullivan and lashings of the writings/philosophies of Joyce, Lenin and Tzara. The result is a powerful cocktail – perhaps a Hock and Selzer given Carr’s enthusiasm for that liquid concoction. (I have never seen a Hock and Selzer. It’s obvious we move in different social drinking circles…)

TravestiesTim Hatley’s set is inspired. It represents Carr’s mind, cluttered with the remembered symbols of bygone years – a library, a table for taking tea, a piano, wooden and wood-panelled stairs and corridors. It also clearly evokes a Courtroom – clever given one of the reasons Carr is remembering his time with the three very different historical figures is that he was embroiled in bitter litigation with Joyce.

At the same time, the set clearly speaks of revolution. Carr’s remembered world looks like it has been ransacked by cultural vandals or, perhaps, been the scene of a pop-up poetry contest arranged by Tzara – papers are strewn everywhere and there is a permanent sense of a new order in formative stages. Its a near perfect example of a set amplifying, illuminating and contextualising a text. Genius.

This being a play surfing memories, light is integral and Neil Austin’s work is stunning. He creates a hazy sense, an effulgent essence which reflects the memory – it is as if you are peering into the dark crevices of Carr’s mind. As memories get darker and dimmer, so does the haze; when resets occur, those sudden sharp synapses of energy where a thought ends and a new one begins, the light bounces back; slow dimming effectively creates poignant and deeply affecting mood swings. While properly punctuating the action, Austin also makes the light beautiful. Also genius.

Adam Cork provides original music which is never intrusive but always fascinating, sometimes melancholy, sometimes jaunty, sometimes cheeky. Always perfect. Polly Bennett’s movement is precise and apt, swiftly changing moods and styles as needed, always contributing, not detracting, from the whole. The overall Vaudevillian texture is gleefully enmeshed with the bite and brilliance of the language. The entire creative team here is exemplary.

Marber brings a discipline to the presentation which proves intriguingly electrifying. One of Stoppard’s key devices is to repeat scenes, but with variations. This can be confusing or tiresome, but not here. Marber ensures that the audience is desperately waiting for the next variation, the next aberration. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the audience is primed for joy each time Marber’s desk bell pings brightly, announcing a fresh dynamic.

Travesties

The cast is near faultless.

Tom Hollander is in marvellous form as Carr, both elder and younger versions. With eyes twinkling, a suave and jaunty air about everything, superb diction and a thorough mastery of difficult dialogue, Hollander delivers an impeccable comic turn. He accumulates laughs with ease, but is also adept enough to scoop eloquent gravitas from speeches when needed. His timing is immaculate and so is his capacity for poignant, truly affecting moments.

As James Joyce, Peter McDonald is an Irish legend made flesh. He makes an art of solemnity and cerebral assuredness, producing a fussy and fusty character who cannot dress himself properly but who can lay claim to have written one of the world’s greatest books. In an instant, he can shed that ramrod indignity, grab a guitar and assume a zany silliness. His contradictions are funny and powerful.

So too with Tim Wallers, who is gloriously twee and old-fashioned as Bennett, the Miss Prism (sort of) of the Zurich consul. His starchy inquisitiveness and haughty, gossippy nature is perfectly played by Bennett, raking laughter from every possibility.

Forbes Masson makes a real impression as Lenin, crafting him as zealous, impassioned and driven. His work with wigs is hysterical and the bond he creates between his Lenin and Sarah Quist’s supportive, maternal and just lovely Nadya, rings really true. Quist has a very touching moment in the second Act, one of unexpected but welcome pathos as she describes a desolate moment of pain.

The second Act gets off to an unfeasibly comedic start with a brilliant and perfectly delivered tirade from Clare Foster’s Cicely/Librarian. In an evening of serious high-comedy triumphs, Foster sparkles like a diamond, and not just because she looks gorgeous and sings divinely, but because she is astonishing at draining the comedy from the veins of her character.

TravestiesThe musical send-up of the famous Gwendolyn/Cicely Afternoon Tea from The Importance Of Being Earnest is so good it’s life-threatening – so funny it is difficult to breathe and laugh and listen to every note at the same time.

Amy Morgan is also splendid, with limericks, songs and a When Harry Met Sally moment all feathers in the cap of her articulate and spot-on performance as Carr’s sister, Gwendolyn.

You only have to know that John Hurt and Tim Curry have previously appeared in the role of Tristan Tzara to know that the role requires an otherness, a possibly violent undercurrent of rapacious intensity. The slight blot on the casting copybook here is that Freddie Fox just can’t deliver that performance. He is too smug and self-confident, which works for the most part but does not go far enough.

Unlike the rest of the cast, Fox does not get to grips with the character’s dialogue sufficiently; the others all find a way for the language to energise and colour their characters. Fox, alas, parries the words like hot peanuts – he spits them out articulately, but there is not enough substance to their sense. It doesn’t diminish the overall effect too much – everything else is just so tightly, coolly and expertly done – but it does make you pine for someone who would have made a more unexpected character out of Tzara, the oddest character in the cast.

Marber has done a remarkable job with Travesties. The production demonstrates what a superb script and a superb cast can achieve. It leaves you aching from laughing as well as pondering about art, revolution and many things in between:

“In an age when the difference between prince and peasant was thought to be in the stars, Mr Tzara, art was naturally an affirmation for the one and a consolation to the other; but we live in an age when the social order is seen to be the work of material forces and we have been given an entirely new kind of responsibility, the responsibility of changing society.”

It will be truly be a travesty if this production does not transfer and play in the West End. If it did, you could start placing bets on Marber, Hatley, Hollander, Foster, McDonald and Austin all being likely recipients of Olivier Awards. This is the finest ensemble acting, full of exact and exacting performances, that London has seen for some time.

It is sold out in its run at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre. Queue for returns, sleep with someone, or do whatever it takes to see it. Really.

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.