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A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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This Out of Joint production, returning to London following a national tour, pays affectionate tribute to one of the greatest Britons of them all – ‘Dictionary’ Johnson.

Lexicographer, essayist, philanthropist and salon wit, his enduring fame is thanks in no small part to the publication shortly after his death of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, upon which this play is partly based.

I say play, but in truth it's more a collection of aphorisms, observations and biographical notes, as Johnson (Ian Redford) spars variously with Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, Flora MacDonald and King George III, among many others all played by Luke Griffin (standing in for Russell Barr).

Eventually, we also get a glimpse of his long-time companion Hester Thrale, played seductively, if affectedly, by Trudie Styler; why she doesn't play the other female characters I'm not entirely sure.

There’s a greatest hits of Johnson’s witticisms on show – from “Paradise Lost is a book that once put down, is very difficult to pick up again” to “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt” (though some attribute that to Lincoln).

Physically, Redford seems born to play Johnson, though his delivery sometimes struggles to match the brilliance of the words he had a hand in adapting. Griffin makes a fine foil, especially considering he only had a week to prepare.

Max Stafford-Clark has, I suspect, had more input as adaptor than director – this is a play that could make the transition to radio with very little alteration.

Last time it was in the capital A Dish of Tea was served at Johnson's house in Gough Street, a setting I can imagine fitted the mood of the piece perfectly. But it lacks intimacy in the Arts, leading me to quote another of the great man’s own observations, “worth seeing, but not going to see”.

- Theo Bosanquet

NOTE: The following THREE STAR review dates from March 2011, when this production was performed at Dr Johnson's House in Gough Square.

Out of Joint are taking A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson on tour but are stopping off this week for three sold out performances in the great man’s charming house in Gough Square, behind the Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street.

So we had the uncanny experience of watching Ian Redford in a white wig and voluminous brown frock coat holding forth wittily and humanely, like some huge talkative barrel, with Russell Barr as his biographer James Boswell, in the very room, or garret, where he composed his famous Dictionary.

Written as a two-man play by the actors and director Max Stafford-Clark, we had, too, a special guest appearance by Trudie Styler (who’s organising a fundraiser for Out of Joint and the Salisbury Playhouse later this month) as Hester Thrale, the fairly appalling society hostess whom Johnson adored and who ditched him for a second husband after her first one ate himself to death.

Both simpering and glacial, Styler certainly nails Thrale’s nasty side, but she also unbalances the production, which is conceived as a series of duels between Johnson and Barr not only as Boswell, but also as an enjoyably detailed galѐre of a blind, tea-toting housekeeper, Oliver Goldsmith, Joshua Reynolds, Flora MacDonald and King George III - who granted Johnson his controversial pension.

Barr plays Hesther Thrale, too, at most performances on tour, and that would enrich the arguments elsewhere about death and dependency, money and melancholy. The text, rich in aphorisms and beautifully constructed sentences, is mostly taken from Boswell’s Life and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, and it’s considerably more than a polite literary diversion; Redford’s Johnson rails and rants (he’s wonderfully rude about Garrick) and shows the rough side of this overpoweringly magnificent and loveable man.

Johnson’s beloved cat Hodge is played by Mr Redford’s own mangy little Jack Russell terrier, Katie, who pants and snaffles for the show’s duration (70 minutes) while tied to a table leg. Next year the Olivier Awards will have to invent yet another new category: Best Dog of a Performance, and Katie will be running the white Highland terrier in The Wizard of Oz very close to the finishing line.


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