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A CurtainUp London Review
"A social revolution? Unaccompanied women smoking at the opera, do you mean?" — Henry
Tom Hollander as Henry Carr (Photo: Johan Persson)
Tom Stoppard's play Travesties is based on the assumed acquaintances of Henry Wilfred Carr in Zurich in 1917. These include Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin (Forbes Masson) and James Joyce (Peter McDonald) who are staying in Zurich at the same time. They also meet two of the fictional female characters from Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest, Gwendolen (Amy Morgan) and Cecily (Clare Foster). Henry Carr has escaped from the most terrible near death experience, being wounded for five days and left for dead in No Man's Land during the First World War, when he was captured by the Germans and exchanged in a prisoner exchange which led to him ending up in Switzerland.

The stage and audience seating have been reconfigured at the Menier for this production. The floor has been covered with pasted pages from old books and the audience sit to the left of the stage as well as directly in front of it but the back row of each seating area is closer to the stage than previously.

Tom Hollander as Henry Carr wears an old battered hat, barely recognisable as a boater, and a dressing gown and slippers. Freddie Fox plays Tristan Tzara, the Romanian poet and proponent of the Dadaism movement, a nihilist revolutionary movement founded in Zurich in the First World War. Did Tzara become more realistic as he matured. No, but he tired of nihilism and became a Surrealist!

Travesties is a smorgasbord of a play, full of clever, witty ideas with a rather weak linkage of those in Zurich at a particular point in time. For those with a good grasp of cultural references there will be much to smile at. James Joyce's Ulysses is often referred to, not least with the mention of elasticated bloomers. They talk about Switzerland and the Swiss saying, "even the cheese is full of holes".

Travesties is a showcase for the wordplay of Tom Stoppard with some of genuine history — such as the impact of the morganatic marriage of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. This led to a royal reception for her in Sarajevo, unlike most other parts of the Austro Hungarian Empire which failed to recognise her as a commoner. Without her, Franz Ferdinand wouldn't have been in Sarajevo and assassinated on 28th June 1914. The other fact which Stoppard doesn't mention is that Franz Ferdinand had been sewn into his uniform to give him a less gaping profile and that, because of this, they were unable to open his coat and staunch the bleeding from the gunshot wounds. Oh the wonderful ephemera of a study of history.

James Joyce gives us a music hall song, "Yours Truly Mr Dooley", and Gwendolen recalls that Henry was a wonderful Goneril in Lear at Eton. The first act closes with Gwendolen (Amy Morgan) rendering Shakespeare's sonnet, "Shall I Compare You to a Summer's Day?" accompanied by Lenin on a lute. The idea is that Henry should play Algernon or Ernest in Oscar Wilde's classic play.

Act Two opens with James Joyce reciting the Molly Bloom speech from his book Ulyssses. We then hear about Lenin, a revolutionary in waiting, receiving the news of the St Petersburg uprising and the abdication of the Tsar. Lenin of course realises he must end his exile and return home as soon as possible. Henry Carr looking very swanky in a good blazer and a new boater takes his part in the rewritten The Importance of Being Earnest and has an animated, jolly clever conversation with the politically radicalised Cecily, the Librarian (Clare Foster). Cecily starts spouting Marxist anti-liberal propaganda with stock phrases such as "the enemy of revisionism" and dances a red lit sexy dance for Henry using dogma and explicit sexual moves with stocking tops. Lenin appears to make his re-entry to Russia disguised s a priest. Henry Carr comments, "There was nothing wrong with Lenin apart from his politics."

Although much is set in a library in Zurich with a raised dais there are good atmospheric scenes involving steam trains as Lenin makes his way back to Russia. The two girls sing a jolly ending calling James Joyce a "Quadri-ocular Irish git". The whole cast finish with a Charleston. As I said, it is hard to identify coherent themes in Travesties but you should have a good deal of fun trying.

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Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Patrick Marber

Starring: Tom Hollander, Peter McDonald, Freddie Fox
With: Clare Foster, Amy Morgan, Sarah Quist, Forbes Masson, Tim Wallers
Designed by Tim Hatley
Sound Design: Adam Cork
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Composer: Adam Cork
Movement: Polly Bennett
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7378 1713
Booking to 19th November 2016
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th October 2016 performance at Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU (Rail/Tube: London Bridge)
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