Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Invention of Love

Tom Stoppard
New production by Richard Beecham
Salisbury Playhouse
(2005)

Christopher Ravenscroft as A.E.Housman, Robin Laing as the younger Housman

At grammar school the more erudite masters would talk about "verbal gymnastics", unlike teachers at the secondary modern I shared briefly with John Prescott where a spade was recognised, and even used by some classes.

While over years Tom Stoppard may have proved himself a purposeful playwright, The Invention Of Love, directed by Richard Beecham at Salisbury Playhouse, shows him restored as university wit. What takes place on stage is a study in "gymnastics" blended with Footlights review.

Apparently, this is - or should have been - a Stoppard's eye view of his hero A.E Housman, the Worcester lad whose departing persona hovers strangely over the entire proceedings. Alas, Christopher Ravenscroft, master of the detective form on TV, lacks the voice of authority that might compel our undivided attention.

Alas, too, Mr Stoppard himself allows his own concentration to wander. All shades of distinguished brains wander onto the campus, so dazzling us with their genius that we quite forget what we are supposed to be thinking!

Of course, it's all a great send-up - but that's no consolation when you're juggling intuitive argument with theories about "real or imaginary" homosexuality in Ancient Greece! Perhaps if the imagined exchange between Housman and Oscar Wilde, that should surely be the highlight of the second half, were even marginally convincing, we might all go home content.

Liz Cooke's design cleverly facilitates both Housman's omni-presence and the diversions of punters' talk on the Isis. And there is a balanced company of fellow and freshman players, among them Timothy Kightly and an under used Jonathan Newth, to represent an array of academic genius.

"On the evidence of my plays," Stoppard has admitted, "people think me far more erudite than I am." A statement arguably endorsed by this evidence. As one whose misspent youth allowed only a smattering of gymnastics of either school, I fear for those who must have been wondering what on earth Stoppard is rambling about!

"The Invention Of Love" runs at Salisbury until 26 March

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole