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Review Round-up: Stoppard Revival Earns Favour

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The National Theatre's revival of Tom Stoppard's rarely performed 1977 play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, written for six actors and a full orchestra, opened to critics at the NT Olivier on Friday (16 January 2009, previews from 12 January).

Stoppard wrote the play at the request of composer and conductor Andre Previn, who subsequently provided the music for the piece and directed the London Symphony Orchestra in the original production, which featured a cast including Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (who will soon be sharing a stage again in Waiting for Godot on tour and at the Theatre Royal Haymarket).

The action concerns a dissident, Alexander Ivanov, who is locked up in an asylum with a real lunatic (also called Ivanov) who thinks he’s surrounded by an orchestra. Punchdrunk’s Felix Barrett and NT associate director Tom Morris direct the co-production with Southbank Sinfonia orchestra, which stars Toby Jones as Ivanov and Joseph Millson as Alexander. The cast also features Bryony Hannah, Dan Stevens, Alan Williams and Bronagh Gallagher.

Critical opinion ranged from the indifferent to the ecstatic – with most in the former camp highlighting the plays “dated” political agenda as a primary bone of contention. However, there was high praise for the “bravura” of Barrett and Morris' direction, as well as the “perfect pitch” of principal cast members Toby Jones, Joseph Millson and Dan Stevens. Less eulogistic were comments regarding the casting of Bryony Hannah as Sacha – with some perceiving it as an unwelcome layer of confusion in a play notorious for its “abiding strangeness”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “I never thought I’d see the play again, and now that I have I’m not sure I needed to. The revival by Felix Barrett, artistic director of Punchdrunk, and Tom Morris, the NT associate director who is opening so many new doors on the South Bank, is curiously flat and disappointing. There’s not really a surprise element any more in the idea of a madhouse of musicians, even if some of them now cavort surprisingly around the music stands. This “physical theatre” innovation replaces the real pain and anger of the dissident’s position, while the writer’s son, Sacha, who is taking lessons in geometry from a private teacher (Bronagh Gallagher), is played nonsensically by a female actor, Bryony Hannah; the optimism of Sacha’s incantatory pleading doesn’t bite as it once did.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “This extraordinary 'play for actors and orchestra' … has been given a new lease of life by Punchdrunk's Felix Barrett and the National's Tom Morris. They have added a physical bravura to the work's moral passion and musical inventiveness, so that in 65 minutes we get an all-encompassing piece of total theatre … André Previn's score, which punctuates the action, always had an edgy, Shostakovich-like quality. Here, the on-stage orchestra, the Southbank Sinfonia conducted by Simon Over, is fully integrated into the action. As Alexander charts the cruelty that led to the incarceration of his friends, individual musicians rise protestingly to their feet and are then subjected to violent beatings … Joseph Millson (Alexander), Toby Jones (Ivanov) and Dan Stevens (a violin-playing doctor) perform with perfect pitch in a play that brilliantly counters Soviet iron with Stoppardian irony, and shows the terrors of living in an orchestrated society.”
  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Tom Stoppard’s sense of the world being tugged between forces of frail enlightenment and powerful darkness finds disturbing expression in this perennially original black comedy for six actors and an orchestra: the first scene, in a miscast, spectacular production by Felix Barrett and Tom Morris, heralds the play’s abiding strangeness, its flair for provoking bleak laughter and for suggesting what it sounds like inside a madman’s mind ... The orchestra’s sheer size lends airs of extravagant opulence to this unatmospheric production. Only the ironic finale,when a military colonel finds an excuse to free Alexander, an action which leaves this heroic protester still spiritually fettered, brings home the force of Stoppard’s rousing salvo for heroic dissenters in totalitarian regimes.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (five stars) - “Felix Barrett and Tom Morris' production is ominously alive. Richly alive, too, thanks to the presence of 40 members of the Southbank Sinfonia. Their task is to play André Previn's score: which can be loud and dissonant, mainly when Toby Jones' podgily nerdish yet scarily erratic Ivanov is hallucinating their presence, but can also be soft and grave, mainly when Joseph Millson, who is also called Ivanov, is describing the deprivations and tortures he suffered after making a mild political protest … The problem in 1977 was that, despite its witty connections and wonderfully ironic resolution, Every Good Boy was actually two plays not so seamlessly forced into one. But the directors have had an idea that brilliantly links the lunatic's and the dissident's stories. Suddenly, thuggish warders patrol the orchestra, seizing, beating, even killing players in a crazed ballet, which emphasises that both men inhabit the same mad, unjust world.”
  • Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times (three stars) - “It is not solely the logistics of Tom Stoppard’s crazily ambitious 1977 play – written for six actors and a full symphony orchestra (directors Tom Morris and Felix Barrett also add several dancers) – that militate against its more frequent revival. To put it harshly, this bleak, fantastical indictment of the Soviet Union’s use of psychiatric hospitalisation against dissidents is a play for yesterday … Morris and Barrett stage the piece with flair, naturally. The Southbank Sinfonia, play André Previn’s score as they sit on the Olivier’s revolve and in the imagination of deluded, hospitalised triangle-player Alexander Ivanov ... a role in which the out-of-kilter amiability of Toby Jones fits perfectly. Joseph Millson’s shaven-headed dignity here is affecting … And although we may have partly missed the dense punning of early Stoppard, this revival and his last new play Rock ’n’ Roll suggest the geo-political sense of this most complex of playwrights is paradoxically bound by the simple binaries of the cold war.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet

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