Rough Crossing - Lyttelton

The Times; London; Oct 31, 1984; Irving Wardle;

Inventive abandon
Following their previous raids on Schnitzler and Nestroy, here is the latest and most brilliant of Tom Stoppard and Peter Wood's Austro-Hungarian collaborations.

The National Theatre hand-out describes it as "freely adapted" from Molnar's Play at the Castle, but that hardly conveys the scale of the operation. Adaptation in Stoppard's terms, means finding a sympathetic text and using it as a springboard for invention that leaves the original far behind... this time, Stoppard has found a totally compatible source, matching his temperament at every point, except in irrepressible high spirits.

Molnar's piece (hitherto known to the English-speaking stage through P.G. Wodehouse's version, The Play's the Thing) shows a couple of writers devoting a short sojourn on the Italian Riviera to composing a play which mirrors the events of their weekend. Since its first appearance in 1928, Anouilh and others have pulled this kind of trick so often that the idea of a wry comedy juggling with "life" and "the theatre" as interchangeable balls is likely to provoke a deep groan.

Stoppard's way out of this is not to apologise for the idea but to push it to the utmost theatrical excess. For a start, he abandons Molnar's palatial villa and thrusts the partners on to a transatlantic liner on which they are desperately composing a musical which is due to go into rehearsal as soon as they dock in New York.

He preserves the triangular plot of an overheard conversation between the leading lady and her former lover which provokes his rival, the show's composer, into tearing up his score, only to resume work when one of the wily authors passes off the fatal tete-a-tete as a scene from the show. But around this slender central device, he weaves an increasingly amazing pattern of verbal misunderstandings, eccentric character development, showbiz spectacle, and sea-going hazards, all of which come to occupy equal importance in the plot.

His main single invention is the part of the ship's steward (Michael Kitchen) first seen gingerly arriving with a cognac and taking every precaution to keep himself upright on the deck of a firmly anchored ship. Joke one is that he knows nothing about ships. Joke two is that he pre-empts the partners' discussion on the art of exposition by delivering a full account of the dramatic situation in faultless synopsis writer's English. As a waiter he also has an unerring ability to pounce on harmless remarks as an invitation to have a drink.

That is typical of Stoppard's method. What seems a simple verbal gag turns into a long-range comic idea; and an alternative title for Rough Crossing would be Waiting for the Brandy, as it is not until the final scene that Turai, the dominant writing partner, gets served...

Peter Wood matches the text with a production that likewise overflows with the joys of theatricality. Conspicious flights of invention come with the sight of Mr Kitchen getting his sea-legs as everyone else staggers hopelessly on the rolling-main; the post-shipwreck return of the chorus in oilskins and gold-lamé yashmaks, and the straightening of the tower in the Pisa Room (realistic artifice fully embodied in Carl Toms's set) when the captain (another would-be author) heads off course to give Turai a stable rehearsal room.

Sheila Gish, deploying deep Slavic tones and crimson beach slacks, and Robin Bailey lead the play within the play. And, for good measure, one can well imagine André Previn's numbers going down big on the other side.

Many thanks to Deb for digging out this review.