Dr Johnson's House, London EC4 and touring
Opened 8 March, 2011

“My house is full of vagabonds that no sane person would have near them,” remarks Samuel Johnson in this adaptation from James Boswell’s books about the 18th-century critic, conversationalist and lexicographer. The line resonates more exquisitely when the audience (a) includes a gaggle of 21st-century critics and (b) is not simply in the imagined space of Johnson’s house, but in the very building… indeed, in the very garret in which he compiled the first Dictionary Of The English Language. Out Of Joint’s small-scale tour stops off for a few evenings at Johnson’s house, just behind Fleet Street.
The play is in effect a two-hander performed by its co-adapters (along with director Max Stafford-Clark): Ian Redford is Johnson, and Russell Barr is Boswell and everyone else ranging from his housekeeper, “a poor blind lady from Wales”, to King George III. (In an amusingly cheeky touch, Johnson’s cat Hodge is represented by Barr’s Jack Russell terrier.) Redford does not deliver Johnson’s epigrams in the plummy tones of our mind’s ear, but rather in the good doctor’s authentically broad Black Country accent, “a most uncouth voice” as Boswell observed on first meeting. As for those aphorisms themselves, I began by keeping a tally but had given up within five or six minutes, so fecund is the material in this regard. Also interspersed are a clutch of Johnson’s dictionary definitions, beginning of course with “Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge”.
This is a portrait, not a narrative play: we hear Johnson’s opinions on mortality, melancholy, his parents and his marriage, David Garrick and Boswell’s biographising, and proceed thus to the pair’s tour of the Hebrides. When Johnson’s attention turns to his beloved Mrs Thrale, then at this performance and a few others on the tour Barr is decorously relieved of that role by Trudie Styler, who smilingly details Johnson’s appearance as if sizing him up for Tantra rather than tea. Dramatically, then, a slight piece, but Johnson so bestrides our literary and linguistic culture that even such an 80-minute trot offers delights aplenty.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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