Travesties review – ‘a very competent production of a fiendishly complicated play’

Roddy Howland Jackson is utterly charmed by a dynamic, absurdist comedy of historic proportions

Photo: Luke Wintour

“For every thousand people there’s nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who’s the artist.” Henry Carr, the lead character in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, may think little of the passive role of the artist, but in this case it’s surely the reviewer who counts as the “lucky bastard”. Free tickets? Check. Interval drink vouchers? Check. All this while a strong cast laboured deftly in “doing the work” of a demanding play – and “doing it well” at that.

Travesties charts the reminiscences of Henry Carr (Lee Simmonds), a minor British diplomat stationed in Switzerland in 1917, and his encounters with Tristan Tzara (Julia Pilkington), James Joyce (Kate Weir), and Vladimir Lenin (Staś Butler). If such an assembly sounds unlikely, that’s because it is – while Carr’s feud with Joyce is based in fact, Stoppard plays with Carr’s narrative unreliability to draw these famous figures into collision. As Bea Udale-Smith suggests in her director’s note, “the play, taken sincerely, is about a disintegrating mind”. History, art, identity, and purpose all compete for purchase in Carr’s memory, brewing a play that is as high-concept as it is entertaining.

But as Udale-Smith rightly acknowledges, “Travesties isn’t actually a sincere play.” The brilliance of Carr’s senility is that it allows Stoppard to explore profound questions within a profoundly silly environment. There’s a scene written entirely in limericks. Tzara reimagines Shakespeare with a pair of scissors. The action of the play slowly blurs into a self-aware pastiche of The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s thoroughly absurd, and thoroughly enjoyable – a relief, given the play’s intellectual heft, which can occasionally wear on the audience’s patience.

In the lead role, Simmonds is captivating, navigating the layers of Carr’s delusions with considerable dexterity. As a doddering narrator, his eyes dart anxiously at the audience for validation; as his younger self, he conjures remarkable comic timing and impressive facial elasticity. Pilkington brings ebullience to Tzara, while Butler is imposing as Lenin. Kate Weir plays an imperious Joyce, whose views on art are rendered the most convincingly by Stoppard: “An artist is the magician put among men to gratify – capriciously – their urge for immortality.” The big three historical figures drift at times into the realm of caricature, but given Carr’s tendency to exaggerate his memories, this can be forgiven. The female casting of Joyce and Tzara is a decision repaid by Weir’s and Pilkington’s performances, which compound the sense of distortion in Carr’s recollections.

Related  Medea Review - 'vengeful, manipulative, and captivating'

Udale-Smith guides the audience through this breakdown confidently, adjusting us to Carr’s self-importance with clever spotlighting, and inventing an ensemble to visually fracture his account.

Only at times does this effort fall flat: Travesties is not a play about subtlety, but the music was often heavy-handed. Perhaps most upsettingly, the ‘Mr Gallagher and Mr Shean’ scene wasn’t quarried for all its comic potential. This is more than made up for by Jon Berry’s hilarious turn as Bennett, the champagne-guzzling servant with radical left-wing sympathies, which admittedly had me in stitches.

In an interview in February, Stoppard advised any future directors of the play that the actors need firstly to be audible, and secondly to be charming. I have few gripes about hearing the actors, and even fewer about the likeability of their performances. Udale-Smith has mounted a very competent production of a fiendishly complicated play – as such, Carr’s insistence on his “triumph in a demanding role” in The Importance of Being Earnest is an accolade that can be given to the team behind Travesties, only without any sense of dramatic irony.