Every so often one needs reminding of the brilliance of Tom Stoppard. The Hard Problem last year, did illustrate that his creative genius has not faded, but this was only his second play in the last 10 years, and there seems to have been a remarkable reluctance to revive some of his past work. This could all now change following this exceptional production of Travesties, which will transfer from The Menier Chocolate Factory to the Apollo in February. Director Patrick Marber has captured all of the literary and theatrical gymnastics that this play holds, to deliver a production that is pure comedy gold. He is helped in this by some terrific performances, most notable that of Tom Hollander, who is perfect as the minor consular official Henry Carr. It is no easy feat to fully convey the intense content of Stoppard’s work – the puns, gags, witticisms and clever wordplay come thick and fast, and without the benefit of a pause button it is easy to miss some brilliant dialogue if the cast are not giving it the delivery it deserves, and holding our attention continuously.
Stoppard takes the intriguing coincidence of Lenin, dadaist Tristan Tzara and James Joyce being in Zurich together in 1917, and explores the possibilities of their interaction via the very unreliable reminiscences of the elderly Carr. As he looks back on his life he is very confused about whom he met and when and, given that he was playing Algernon (“not Earnest, the other one”) in the Importance of Being Earnest at the time, his misrememberings become very confused with the plot of the play. Joyce is the play’s director, and Carr’s mind weaves the monitoring of Lenin’s movements ahead of his departure following the October Revolution and Tzara’s surreal activities into the narrative of his life, while the local librarian and his sister become the principle female characters from the play, Gwendolen and Cecily. All of this provides opportunities for the creation of limericks, Wildean puns, songs and even some burlesque. The action often descends into farce, but never loses its intellectual credibility.
Tom Hollander’s performance is complimented by excellent work from Forbes Mason as a suitably posturing Lenin, Peter McDonald brilliantly conveying the twisted English of Joyce, and Freddie Fox dashingly louche as Tzara. Special mention should be made of Clare Foster as Cecily and Amy Morgan as Gwendolyn Carr, who interact with perfect comic timing in their duet. Funny, touching and intellectually stimulating; this is theatre as it should be.