Dinner With Groucho

Frank McGuinness
B*Spoke Theatre Company
Arcola Theatre

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Ian Bartholomew as Groucho Marx and Greg Hicks as T S Eliot Credit: Ros Cavanagh
Greg Hicks as T S Eliot, Ingrid Craigie as the Proprietor and Ian Bartholomew as Groucho Marx Credit: Ros Cavanagh
Ingrid Craigie as the Proprietor Credit: Ros Cavanagh

This world première production of Frank McGuinness’s 70-minute new play, which opened in Dublin, now comes to London. It offers the unlikely pairing of movie star comic genius Groucho Marx and acclaimed poet and publisher T S Eliot.

In fact, these men from different ends of the artistic spectrum did meet after a correspondence that began when, in 1961, Eliot wrote to Marx as a fan requesting a photograph. This isn’t that meeting; this is no documentary but fun-filled fantasy in which, seance like, they are summoned to a restaurant by its elegant and autocratic proprietor. The only diners, their table is set on a sandy shore against a blue sky that sometimes turns red and Adam Wiltshire’s set eventually becomes a star-studded heaven; this could all be in an afterlife.

Eliot and Marx are suddenly there, like magic, spooning the last of their chicken soup. “Duck Soup,” says Eliot, wanting to discuss the film not the first course and we are off into a helter-skelter exchange that could be full of hidden profundities as it ranges from reference to Garbo and Marie Lloyd to lines from The Waste Land; from talk of Houdini to mention of Dante. Groucho invents a family history for King Lear (Jewish of course) with Cordelia a boy, brought up as a girl (there are reasons). Eliot embarks on a succession of conjuring tricks.

Though there is quite a palaver over how they would like their steak main course cooked, no more food is forthcoming yet they still get a huge bill. As Eliot points out, this is not the first time that proprietor Margaret has given him the bill for the banquet with which a livery company welcomed their new king when James I arrived in London.

The script maybe full of erudite references for the knowledgeable to pick up, including the reflection of Eliot’s anti-semitic streak in his refusal of champagne from Israel (though he likes the country’s climate), but Loveday Ingram’s production has a light touch. It is probably best enjoyed as a frothy piece of fun. Margaret gives a lovely rendition of "The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery" with her customers joining in and thereafter they frequently break out in song and dance (choreographed by David Bolger). The style is epitomised in the way that sound effects give us the popping of corks and the pouring of non-existent wine.

Ian Bartholomew’s Groucho, with eyebrows, moustache and black tailcoat, certainly looks the part and moves like him too. Greg Hicks, in elegant tweed suit, presents a patrician Eliot letting his hair down but also suggesting a certain sadness despite the popping champagne corks. This pairing produces a delightful double act. There’s fine playing too from Ingrid Craigie as proprietor Margaret, slinky in a succession of grand gowns, full of quirky authority.

The globular lights that hang over the stage seemed to wink when the play started, a cue for the way to enjoy stylishly staged absurdist entertainment.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton