Sir Terence Rattigan and Kafka's Dick. Sorry, that opening must seem incomprehensible; an explanation is called for. At separate points during Waiting For Stoppard, the two principal characters rack their brains to think of a titled playwright or a non-Tom Stoppard play featuring a tortoise. They can come up with none; I was just being smug. Like these riddles, the play overall is rather less dense and conundrum-ridden than those concerned would wish to believe.
Humorous columnist and bass-fiddle-slapper Miles Kington has written a piece about two media hacks waiting to be granted interviews with Britain's cleverest playwright, and has given a brief nod to Samuel Beckett in its title. Armed with that information, you can pretty much deduce what the play is going to be like. You can guess that Stoppard will never appear (although in fact another character gives a wicked impersonation of him), and that the pair of supplicants, as in The Real Inspector Hound or Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, will both offer bewildered commentaries on what goes on elsewhere and gradually become drawn into events too big and incomprehensible for them – in this case, undercover counter-terrorist activities.
You can also infer that the jokes are likely to be more Kingtonesque than Stoppardian. Kington's humour works by, as it were, taking individual ideas and words and sliding them a square or two to one side, where Stoppard (at least, early Stoppard, who is the main object of parody here) gives several of them at once a twist and a quick snip to produce a chain of interlinked Möbius strips. In other words, rather than engaging in comic exchanges which are much more intelligent than they seem to be, harassed television producer Ben and bitch-queen newspaper interviewer Jo ponder amusingly on the word "Stoppardian" and the perfect superciliousness of the butler; only occasionally do they stumble upon one of Uncle Tom's paradoxes, and then they do not really know what to do with it.
Both Isabel Brook and Stephen Israel go in for acting with a capital A; Brook especially is unable to tone her performance down to fit the intimate space of Southwark Playhouse. Consequently, Jo and Ben are too cartoonish to possess the quirky charm of, say, Ros and Guil. Jonathan Rigby, though, is a delight as James the butler, both when coolly embodying essence de Stoppard and after he is revealed to be someone else entirely.
Kington all but drowns Stoppard out in the second half, in which the plot is discovered for no discernible reason to be driven by the Rushdie fatwa – a puzzling and (dare I say it?) even morally dubious route. It is good to see the Southwark Playhouse continuing in its policy of intelligent, original programming, but Antidote Theatre's production is not, I fear, one of the venue's greatest successes.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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