Review by Sam Waite
Following its debut last month in Belfast, and brief runs in Dublin and Oxford, the premiere production of this new piece by Frank McGuinness is now playing at London’s Arcola Theatre. Making use of the theatre’s 100 seat Studio space, this is a play that thrives on the inherent intimacy of the setting. A thrust staging – the audience on three out of four sides – helps to reinforce the idea of watching two men in a single room who at times seem to be being watched.
Set in a restaurant in an unspoken location (the “edge of heaven” as it's called in the programme), this one-act piece presents a dinner between two media juggernauts of their time – comedian and actor Groucho Marx and poet and publisher T. S. Eliot. Meeting the pair mid-starter, the dialogue flows smoothly and believable between them – Eliot, a fan of the Marx film – comments that they are not eating Duck Soup but chicken. Groucho explains that he doesn't care to eat duck, tossing out a joke about kosher eating while keeping the last laugh by playing dumb in regards to his dining partner’s wordplay.
As played by Ian Bartholomew, Groucho is immediately recognisable . Even those among us too young or not classic-inclined enough to be familiar with Marx can connect this man to the endless homages and send-ups since his heyday. However, Bartholomew’s performance is much more than a caricature, digging into both the humanity and fear just as much as the comedy. Periodically, Groucho seems to begin to question how the set-up of their meal came to be, before he and Eliot find themselves on yet another tangent.
Equally, Greg Hicks plays a fully rounded human based around the most recognisable traits of his subject. His T. S. Eliot is often too deliberate in his well-spoken nature, and clearly marked as the poet counterpart to Marx’s comedian. He has nagging questions of his own to be distracted from by his and Marx's ongoing banter, but his seem to have been long/buried. Eliot is portrayed as having frequented this restaurant, and as being more clear with their fate. It's said directly that he's been looking forward to meeting Groucho for a long time, and assuming you caught the “edge of heaven” description it becomes noteworthy that Eliot passed away more than a decade before Marx.
Popping in to check on the pair every so often is Ingrid Craigie, in a role credited only as “The Proprietor.” She is their waitress, host, potentially chef and periodically a part of the performances they put on for their audience. Infrequent but always entertaining, the actors perform song and dance routines directly to the audience, hinting at the idea of this as some imagined duo act created in the mind of its subjects. When these moments occur, they don't feel out of place between Craigie delicately balances being the third party in their conversations and a detached, clearly otherworldly presence.
The narrative, played out over 70 minutes, is slight and this serves the piece well. Under Loveday Ingram’s direction, an already-ongoing meeting of two American icons alternately opens up to play to the audience and pulls inwards to refocus on how adoring these two are of each others’ gifts with only the way lines are spoken guiding this transition. Meanwhile, McGuinness lives up to his reputation by crafting dialogue that feels authentic and allows his characters to wander into frequent tangents and over-explanations of their ideas without it seeming clumsy. Under his and Ingram’s guidance, a potentially cringe-inducing piece of storytelling about raising children as the gender not corresponding with their biological assignment – it makes sense when it's happening, I promise – feels like a genuine comedic tirade by Groucho Marx. I also appreciate the lack of attempt to hide the flaws of these real-life figures, as Marx famously criticised the political left and May not have been prepared for a more politically correct take on his comedy.
While I will admit some of the ending’s dialogue felt just a touch too on the nose, and some will be put off by the almost non/existent plot, the performances and quality of the writing elevate this new play above merely an homage to two heroes of their art forms. Little can be said about the costuming and set design – simple, unobtrusive – but there is also very little that I can criticise on the technical and design side of things.
This thoughtful and understated play won't be for everyone, but it's a provocative and sometimes moving piece that will find favour with many. If nothing else, it proves the pedigree of its author and the talents of its trio of actors, who more than earned their final bows.
Dinner With Groucho plays at the Arcola Theatre until December 10th. Tickets from https://www.arcolatheatre.com/
Photos by Ros Kavanagh.