A group of accomplished actors have a Rough Passage in Tom Stoppard’s slight comedy but manage to save a leaky boat.
The play is set on a transatlantic liner in the 1930s. Two writers and a composer are attempting to complete a play script for performance when they reach New York. The leading lady has an amorous shipboard encounter with the leading man which is overheard by her fiancé, the composer. Disaster looms until the writers collude to persuade the composer that what he heard was a rehearsal of the play, not the real thing.
Tom Stoppard’s reputation was well established with acclaimed plays like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Travesties long before Rough Crossing was written in 1984. The latter is a light entertainment which hasn’t worn well, lacks any relevance to the present day and is simply not very funny.
What is intriguing about the play is where it sits in the canon of light entertainment. We can forget about Shaw and Chekhov who were writing meaningful comedies and also Dario Fo and Joe Orton who were brilliant farceurs.
Rough Crossing sits more happily in a niche which includes Whitehall Farce and the Carry On Films but lacks the assurance of those vehicles. As Turai, John Partridge could be Terry Thomas without the cigarette holder and the waiter Charlie Stemp a not so outrageous Manuel from Fawlty Towers.
Stoppard is a wordmonger but in this instance the content depends on a rather laboured metatheatrical conceit, jokes about a speech impediment that fall flat and the endless repetition of a gag about the waiter and the writer’s drink which ceases to amuse.
Given the limitations of the text, the whole cast rises to the challenge with boundless energy and supreme professionalism. As Dvornichek the waiter, Charlie Stemp binds the whole play together and has fun balancing a glass on a tray in stormy weather. Issy Van Randwyck and Simon Dutton as the supposed lovers are full-voiced and splendidly hammy in the play reading of the revised scene.
As the play’s production group, John Partridge and Matthew Cottle steer the troubled ship to a safe haven and make sure that a desperate Rob Ostlere stays on board.
The set sits impressively on the Lyceum stage, gives a stylish reminder of the period setting and provides adequate space for the stage business. Rachel Kavanaugh’s production is fast-moving and full of energy which partly compensates for the inadequacies of the script.