Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
This brilliant play was at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, in the week beginning 12th March 2019 and my review of it appeared in Essential Surrey magazine that week.
We’re all aboard the SS Italian Castle for an evening of outrageous overacting, hilarious sight-gags, running gags, puns and misleading conversations sparklingly interwoven in the masterly way that fans will recognise from other Tom Stoppard comedies. This is a pastiche of musical comedy that really works.
The story is based on a play by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Moulnar, “The Play’s the Thing”. In Stoppard’s version two playwrights and three of the cast of the play they’re writing are all cooped up together on a liner crossing from Cherbourg to New York, trying to complete the script. But a love triangle involving the leading man, the leading lady and the pianist is constantly interfering with the progress of the plot they’re trying to finalise.
Enter Dvornichek, the cabin steward (Charlie Stemp) who is quickly renamed by Turai (John Partridge) and Gal (Matthew Cottle) the writers, and becomes the character who explains all the details of the present situation onstage, for our benefit, as if the action so far hasn’t made it clear enough. Gradually the writers’ power over their play becomes shared, and then taken over, by the rest of the characters: Natasha, the passionate female lead and ex-lover of Ivor Fish (Simon Dutton), Adam (Bob Ostlere) her present fiancé and Dvornichek, now called Murphy the Irish policeman for the purposes of the play within the play. In the tradition of all musical comedies of the first half of the twentieth century, all the knots, both among the characters and in Turai’s play, are satisfactorily untangled and the evening ends with some spectacular dancing by Charlie Stemp and John Partridge, and an unexpected musical performance by Issy van Randwyck as Natasha.
The set is dazzling: we could almost smell the sea air. The costumes and dancing are a delight, the songs and dance routines are beautifully and satirically performed. The whole cast delivers Stoppard’s intricate counterpointed dialogues, full of wordplay and misunderstandings, with perfect dramatic timing. The running jokes are irresistibly funny: the steward, new to the sea-board life, is mysteriously staggering to a ship’s roll when the SS Italian Castle is in dock, yet in a storm he stands steady as a rock while the passengers are being thrown helplessly around the deck. And we wonder, will Turai ever actually be served with the brandy he keeps ordering and that Dvornichek keeps faithfully bringing? (No spoilers for that running gag.)
It’s no surprise to read later that in 1953 PG Wodehouse also created a version of Moulnar’s 1926 play, setting it in a castle, with Dvornichek a Jeeves-like butler. Stoppard’s 1984 version has the same appeal as Wodehouse, and this slick comedy hasn’t lost any of its appeal in the twenty-first century. For an evening of fun and laughter, don’t miss it!
Janice Dempsey 12/3/19