Tom Stoppard
English Touring Theatre in association with Theatre Royal Brighton Productions
New Victoria Theatre, Woking

Dakota Blue Richards (Thomasina Coverly) and Kirsty Besterman (Lady Croom) Credit: Mark Douet
Flora Montgomery (Hannah Jarvis) and Robert Cavanah (Bernard Nightingale) Credit: Mark Douet

This play covers two distinct periods in time, one the early 18th century and the second the present day, and both are set in the same room in an English country house belonging to the Coverly family.

In the first scenes, a young Thomasina Coverly is being tutored by handsome and lustful Septimus Hodge (a well-judged calm and confident performance from Wilf Scolding) although his lust at this time is not directed to his pupil but to all the other women in the house.

She has some very interesting questions to put to him, the first being, “what is meant by a ‘carnal embrace’?”. Septimus deflects the question by giving various other possible definitions (a politician in the making) but this girl is no fool, in fact she is a mathematical and scientific genius and well ahead of her time. She demands the truth, knowledge which horrifies the adults leading to the paradoxical comment that tutors are meant to keep a girl in ignorance.

Sadly, Thomasina was destined never to be taken seriously. Dakota Blue Richards presents Thomasina’s questions and arguments well, but she could use just a little more projection and clarity in such a large theatre.

The themes of the play include science, art, landscape gardening, romanticism versus classism, thermodynamics, the consequences of carnal embrace (there seems to be a lot of that going on in both periods) and longevity suggested by a tortoise present in every scene. It also considers how the actions of characters can have consequences and reactions many years later, and how accurate or otherwise are the views of those writing history.

In the present time, two academics are trying to discover what actually happened here two centuries ago. In a very spirited and focused performance, Flora Montgomery’s best-selling author Hannah has heated arguments with university professor Bernard Nightingale (Robert Cavanagh) who, in his enthusiasm, has prematurely announced on TV his theory that Lord Byron, visiting the house at the time, had killed poet Ezra Chater in a duel. More research proves him wrong.

Daughter Chloe, on the verge of womanhood, suggests there is abundant sexual chemistry between them, but her attempted matchmaking falls flat. She does seem, however, to have a little of Thomasina’s enquiring mind and some interesting theories of her own.

Blanche McIntyre directs with a light touch leaving the play to speak for itself, and the set (Jonathan Fensom) has been kept minimally stark, not even a view through the windows, leaving all concentration to be focused on the words.

The action alternates between the two periods with the characters often lingering a little in the wrong time zone, but finally it all comes together and ends, rather enchantingly, with a waltz.

At three hours long, the play tests the concentration powers of its viewers to the limit, but the audience seemed intent on hearing and hopefully understanding every word.

This is the first time I have seen this play (regarded as Stoppard’s masterpiece) and I have to admit that I did not fully understand it. Stoppard challenges his audiences assuming that they will follow the discussion but comprehension was not helped by the dialogue, witty and clever though it is, being delivered at a fast a furious pace giving no time to consider it.

It does, though, give you a lot to think about and ponder over and is well worth seeing again.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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