From a typically quizzical perspective, Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties presents the memories and fantasies of an amnesiac elderly man named Henry Carr. Tom Hollander (The Night Manager, Rev) gives the lead character a soft-hearted and generous demeanour to match his risible love for a well-cut suit.
The play presents Carr’s flashbacks – often repeated and facetiously altered – to Switzerland during the Great War. Flying through 1917, we meet a petty, limerick spieling mercenary, James Joyce (Peter McDonald), and bombastic, balding Lenin (Forbes Masson). There’s two women who interlink these characters, and an artist love interest, Tristan Tzara (Freddie Fox). Historically the play’s events are a year or so apart but, don’t worry, it’s all tied together at the end under the disclaimer of Carr’s forgetfulness.
Typically for the playwright, the play starts with a baffling exchange. In a Joycean vein, it switches between languages and ignores syntax, producing a scene of deliberate confusion. It clarifies into what seemed for most to be very witty exchanges. At the risk of sounding ignorant, I’d say the play’s humour works predominantly through old and intricate cultural references that only the ‘typical’ theatre goer might get. Even when I did get them, I often didn’t find them funny. Forgive my perspective as a younger audience member – or don’t, for surely that’s what A Younger Theatre is for.
That being so, the only two children in the audience were sat behind me, and I think proved a good barometer for distinguishing the clever wit from the more universally funny. The latter was lacking. On the surface the characters are famous but it’s the details behind them you need to know. We get into the nuances of socialism and communism, riff on the theme of Oscar Wilde, and pick apart Dadaist nihilism.
All this is located variously between a library and Carr’s house; the set by Tim Hatley usefully blurring the lines between the two decorated with stacks of books, a set of library steps, and vast carved ash green walls. Carr muses on the purpose of art with various incarnations of the characters in his memories. Does it have a social purpose, an aesthetic definition or a definition at all? This subject, if not much else, certainly transcends its firm location in the early twentieth century.
The production is funniest when Carr’s memories slip into theatrical fantasies, merging into musical theatre and colourfully lit set pieces. These are beautifully directed by Patrick Marber. The comic star of the show Clare Foster, who plays librarian Cecily, comes into her own here producing a quick-fire translation of a Russian exchange between two servants. And she tops that with a fantasy dance for Carr. There’s a touching moment too with Cecily and her new-found friend (and Carr’s sister) Gwendolen (Amy Morgan) who march off arm in arm, sticking to their intellectual principles rather than their respective love interests.
This is a slick production of Travesties with a starry cast who take all the play’s ridiculous elements and produce something very honourable. It should be understood chiefly as an intellectualised farce and the right audience will absolutely adore it.
Travesties is at the Apollo Theatre until 29 April 2017, for more information and tickets see Sonia Friedman’s website.