This intelligent but baffling play is Tom Stoppard at his finest. I have mixed feeling towards Stoppard as his quality of work can range from the disappointing Hard Problem (National Theatre 2015) to the entertaining in the form of the recent Hapgood revival at the Hampstead Theatre. Stoppard’s 1976 piece Travesties reflects a different time and perhaps a different man.
The intimidating intellectualism that surrounds Stoppard’s work is very much there as it is clear some knowledge of British literature and Russian Communism helps with some of the references but there is also a sense of fun, a playfulness that is often missing from theatre and what makes it a key spectacle. I would argue that you do not need any historical knowledge to enjoy this; it is simply a good and well-paced show.
Previous casts in productions of Travesties include Anthony Sher, Tim Curry, John Hurt and Robert Powell but the West End have a real coup in the casting of Tom Hollander, an actor as comfortable in drama as he is in comedy, plays Henry Carr, who is reminiscing about his work in Zurich as British Consulate, where he encountered a young James Joyce (Peter McDonald) and Vladimir Lenin (Forbes Mason). There is also a subplot that bears more than a resemblance to The Importance of Being Earnest, involving Tristan Zara (Freddie Fox), his sister Gwendoline (Amy Morgan) and Bolshevik librarian Cecily (Clare Foster, who gives a fantastic comic performance and genuinely reminded me of a lot of librarians I know). Hollander is also happy to take a step back in the second half and the only real disappointment is the lack of interesting set and not having seen other productions I am not sure what Marber brings to this production as director, but I know some original lines have been taken away.
It is a fantastic cast, with some great comic timing and some beautiful dramatic writing, particularly for the character of Nadya Lenin (Sarah Quist) but at times it can feel like a waste of some great supporting characters in this rather hectic production Tim Waller’s Bennett is sadly underused and Mason’s Lenin is at his finest when he gets to be a figure of fun. Ultimately, Travesties is quite ridiculous and that is part of its charm. Don’t let the intellectual elements put you off. Enjoy this show as a funny show, which just happens to feature Ulysses, Oscar Wilde, Bolsheviks and a lot of dancing.
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