Leeds Grand Theatre
I first read Stoppard’s work as an impressionable teen and remember lapping up his verbal fireworks, clever punning and metatheatrical games. At his best, too, in the likes of The Real Thing and Arcadia, he hits home with emotional connections and bitter truths, while still bending language in ways which fizz.
But it was a long time before I ever saw a work of his on stage, and this is the first production of Rough Crossing I’ve seen. At best it’s a curate’s egg, and it contains likeable performances all round, but at worst it feels too leaden to carry the froth of the script, which revels in its own inconsequentiality.
In short, the plot (nicked, like Stoppard’s roughly contemporaneous On The Razzle, from an obscure source play but embellished beyond recognition) is that of a pair of writers on a transatlantic cruise struggling to complete (and rehearse) their latest show before they reach New York for the première. Turai (John Partridge) is the more active of the pair, a showy egotist who has great faith in his own genius despite some evidence to the contrary, while Gal (Matthew Cottle) is more passive, largely content to stuff his face with the constant chain of snacks he consumes throughout the evening.
Also on board is their musical collaborator on the piece, Adam Adam (Rob Ostlere); this being the 1920s, the play-within-a-play is to be embellished with a range of musical numbers. Adam suffers not only from his tautological moniker but also from a speech impediment which frequently sees him responding to the previous question (at least until that gag runs out of steam and the character falls silent for most of the second half).
The plot thickens when the leading actors of the play-within-a-play, not expecting this trio of writers to embark until the following morning, are overheard billing and cooing on the balcony. The hitch here is that Natasha Navratilova (Issy van Randwyck) is supposed to be Adam Adam’s intended, and Ivor Fish (Simon Dutton), an ageing roué, supposed to be out of the romantic picture.
Cue much heartache, confusion and frantic rewriting of the script to ensure a smooth passage to the show’s opening.
Completing the cast is Dvornichek (Charlie Stemp), a newbie ship’s steward who’s faked his way into the elegant service aboard the SS Italian Castle and whose lack of sea legs causes him to pitch and stagger across the stage even on the calmest of seas. Dvornichek gets many of the show’s punchiest gags, as well as a key role in delivering plot synopses and cognacs.
With me so far? Bewilderment is a key feature of the humour and all of the cast get their mouths round some fiendishly testing material, from the daftest of one-liners to the deftest of verbal play.
Charlie Stemp also gets to excel in some physical comedy, delivering a (not literally) finely balanced performance as the major-domo ex machina. In terms of one-liners, all of the cast acquit themselves well, but John Partridge really impressed me with just the right kind of louche self-assurance which quavers between empathy and real waspishness. Stemp and Partridge also end the show on a fun tap number, showcasing another of their talents.
What goes wrong, then, in this partial progenitor of The Play that Goes Wrong? For one thing, though originally composed by the legendary André Previn, the musical numbers feel underpowered in this setting. Perhaps the production would have been augmented by a fuller instrumentation and greater use of incidental music to underscore the action. As it is, the odd (in both senses) songs are somewhat apologetic, despite the evident talents of the cast.
In general, too, there’s something slightly, and sadly, leaden about it all, not for want of trying. The cast’s voices get swallowed in the large auditorium, and this kind of speedy, agile dialogue simply can’t ever feel like a strain. From the get-go, there just wasn’t quite the verve or attack required to get the audience onside, and from there it felt like an uphill struggle—though don’t get me wrong: many of the jokes went across well and the cast is giving it their all.
Typically, Stoppard pushes his luck with what wit he can get away with; a one-liner describing someone as the ‘sine qua nonchalance’ is a tough ask for an audience coming fresh to the show and struggling just to keep their noses above the waterline of the plot. So perhaps it’s a play that—absent a truly world-class production—is always likely to be better on the page than off it.