It is a brave student company that takes on a piece which relies on creating a series of characters some fifty years older than the actors available for casting. The result is somewhat patchy. Matt Osman does a very creditable job of capturing the essence of Housman at the end of his life, Guy Westwood also brings the necessary gravitas to his role as the Master of Balliol. Others do struggle to escape the trap of relying on a stereotypical style of acting ‘old’. An over-reliance on grey hairspray and exaggerated make-up does not mask some rather limited characterisation.
Almost inevitably, the younger characters are captured with greater assurance and confidence. Joe Robertson, Jonathan Webb and Phil Bartlett work well as young men making their way through the archaic ways of Victorian Oxford and beyond.
Stoppard’s script makes a number of technical demands both in terms of conveying his densely packed text and in the stage effects necessary to capture all the necessary scenes. The production does feel somewhat stop-start – there is little sense of flow between the scenes and often the direction is somewhat static.
The creative team have been keen to stress how much money was lavished on the production. It is hard to see where they have spent huge sums. Yes, they have created two boats – one to ferry Housman over the River Styx and one for the students to use on the Isis. The rest of the set is supposed to evoke Grecian ruins but the choice of fabrics makes the stage look as if it is covered with dust cloths ready for the decorators to start work.
Stoppard’s script is an incredible piece of work – layered, complex, witty and moving. This production is a credit-worthy attempt but falls slightly short in terms of delivery. There are some fine acting performances at the heart of the play but the supporting cast and rather pedestrian direction leave you wondering what might have been.