18 March 2019
What a curious piece of work is this. ‘Rough Crossing’ was never one of Tom Stoppard’s runaway hits and a revival of this 35 year old play is a good opportunity for new audiences to take a view on it. Loosely based on Ferenc Molnar’s ‘Play at the Castle’, the story of two writers on a 1930s luxury liner trying to finish a play whilst thwarted by an idiosyncratic waiter, a depressed composer and a couple of warring thespians has all the hallmarks of a Coward with a smattering of Ayckbourn.
We are on board the SS Italian Castle sailing from Cherbourg to New York and the beautifully realised set, designed by Colin Richmond, gives us a sense of quality and sophistication. The frustrated writers Turai and Gal are dealing with the speech hesitancy suffered by composer Adam – when asked a question, he responds to the previous one etc. Meanwhile, Russian leading lady Natasha is fighting off the advances of old school lothario Ivor while trying to preserve her relationship with Adam. All events are stymied and complicated by Dvornichek, the waiter, who struggles to stay upright on the calm waters and is perfectly still in the storm.
Stoppard likes words. He likes them in quantity and there is just the suspicion that this slight play contains too many. The actors fairly race through the lengthier speeches, possibly just to get to the end of them, aware that they do verge on the tedious. The dialogue occasionally sparks to life and is amusing, but it is heavy, where a lighter touch is needed, and the thin plot lacks the invention of those to whom this genre is second nature. The reliance on repetitive routines isn’t enough to keep everything afloat and even they eventually run out of steam.
The play dialogue is counterpointed by some very light songs courtesy of the late André Previn – they are pleasant enough and instantly forgettable.
John Partridge, recently seen at this theatre as King Rat in Dick Whittington, does love a slice of camp, but he does so with style and elegance and his delivery is crisp and beautifully nuanced. Matthew Cottle as the less flamboyant creative is equally assured and the two writers spark well together. Rob Ostlere has the difficult task as composer Adam of effecting the delayed line device without a blink – not straightforward I am sure and he manages it with ease, whilst looking suitably downcast as he fears the loss of his love. As the centre of Adam’s life and the magnet for the men’s desires, Issy Van Randwyck is supremely elegant as Natasha, the pretty, and pretty awful leading lady. Simon Dutton gives Ivor Fish, the slightly dim English actor, a lovely suave diffidence and incompetence – the two theatricals would probably bring the curtain down on the first night they are so dire (referring to the play within the play I hasten to add). At times Charlie Stemp must have been channelling Lee Evans with his physical performance as the bonkers waiter. Stemp is the new golden boy of musical theatre – on both sides of the Atlantic – and it is a treat to see him in action – we even witness him singing and dancing. His performance is a joy and he effortlessly steals the show, delivering various plot summaries without a blink – or a pause – and handles the running gags with perfectly. A treat.
As mentioned, the director Rachel Kavanaugh, is under no illusion that this is not an easy play and she has ensured that she has a cast who know just what to do to ‘get away with it’. Visually we are spoiled with the delightful set and stylish costumes – also by Colin Richmond – and, aurally, we are slightly assaulted by Stoppard’s inability to edit himself.
‘Rough Crossing’ is definitely a curiosity. In the hands of anything but a top-notch cast, this could be a bit of an ordeal. Thankfully, we are blessed with an ensemble who throw everything at it and a director who knows what is required to stop it from listing too far.
JOHN PARTRIDGE – TURAI
CHARLIE STEMP – DVORNICHEK
ISSY VAN RANDWYCK – NATASHA
MATTHEW COTTLE – GAL
ROB OSTLERE – ADAM
SIMON DUTTON – IVOR
WRITER – TOM STOPPARD
DIRECTOR – RACHEL KAVANAUGH
SET & COSTUME DESIGN – COLIN RICHMOND
LIGHTING DESIGN – BEN CRACKNELL
SOUND DESIGN – DAN SAMSON
CHOREOGRAPHER – ALISTAIR DAVID
MUSICAL SUPERVISOR – RICH MORRIS
MUSICAL DIRECTOR – LOUISA GREEN