Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
The story is that Weinberl and Christopher, two bored grocer’s shop assistants, decide to go off and find some adventures in the big city, behind their boss’s back. Their ambition is to cause mayhem, and they certainly succeed! The big city is Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, a place of fabled wealth and hedonism, and our “likely lads” are determined to get a piece of the action there.
Robert Sheppard plays Zangler, their employer and "Master Grocer", with tremendous verve: pompous and larger than life, he’s master of an amazing array of twisted clichés, metaphors and malapropisms that have the audience reeling and roaring with laughter. Dom Gwyther is brilliant as the extraordinarily assertive new servant who interviews Zangler before “hiring” him as his employer! I loved the echoes of modern internet dating in Zangler's efforts to find a wife, with the necessary deceptions about age and attractiveness that are all too recognisable today!
Jason Orbaum as Weinberl has the serious, edgy charisma and expressive legs of John Cleese. He breaks at times into Marxist dialectic or flights of turgid 19th century lyrical prose ; Orbaum delivers these passages with a lugubriousness that makes them very funny. Claire Racklyeft plays Christopher, in the tradition of cross-gender acting (of which pantomime is a familiar example). Christopher is a straightforward young hick just out for fun, and Claire's portrayal of him is vigorous and infectiously joyous. She and Jason make a great comedy duo.
Of course, there’s a star-crossed young couple: handsome penniless Sonders (Michael Thonger) and pretty, “proper” Marie (Hana Bird) of whose love Zangler, her guardian, disapproves. Gilly Fick and Kathryn Attwood are flirtatious in beautiful hats as mature sexy Viennese women. Graham Russell-Price plays the lustful coachman to Louise Johnson’s frustrated Lisette, with great gusto. The whole cast is superb in ensemble scenes.
There’s a terrible tangle of sub-plots, as there should be in a good farce, and the action is fast and furious. It’s full of puns, double-entendres and witty wordplay, incidents of mistaken identity, mistaken gender, slapstick and even a pantomime horse! What’s not to like in this romp!
Tom Stoppard wrote “On the Razzle” in 1981, on the back of its convoluted history from an original one-act farce by John Oxenford in 1835, which led to a musical version in Austrian German by Johann Nestroy (1801 - 1862) who has been compared to the French social satirist playwright Molière. In 1954 its plot and setting were moved to New York in plays by Thornton Wilder, successively renamed "The Merchant of Yonkers" (which failed) and "The Matchmaker", a huge Broadway success leading to a film starring Anthony Perkins and Shirley MacLaine in 1958. “Hello Dolly”, the musical in 1964 starring Carol Channing, and the film 1968, were the plot's next incarnation.
Tom Stoppard gave Oxenford's idea a new lease of life, transferred it back to its original Viennese setting, and proved that jokes based on wordplay and buffoonery between the social classes are timeless. This production shows it’s lost none of its verve and wit. A must-see!
On the Razzle is at the Electric Theatre, Guildford,
from 30th November to 3rd December 2016
A version of this review is published on Essential Surrey Magazine's Theatre & Arts page with photos.