Review by Sam Waite
Prolific and often political, Tom Stoppard is a theatrical titan, boasting 5 Tony Awards among the many accolades for his writing on both sides of the Atlantic. Directed at the Hampstead Theatre by Nina Raine, Czech-born Stoppard’s historical 2006 effort, Rock ‘N’ Roll, finds its way back to the London stage to re-explore the ideas of changing ideals, adapting for survival, and the power of good music.
Rock ‘N’ Roll covers a period from 1968 to 1989, concerned with the emergence and rise in authority of socialism in Czechoslovakia, as it was then named. PHD student Jan feels compelled to abandon his Cambridge studies, as well as his budding romance with the professor’s daughter, to return to a homeland he feels dismayed and appalled by. With only his vinyl records to his name, and the protestations of his more loudly, brashly communist former-professor still ringing in his ears, Jan eventually becomes a lecturer in his own right, while PHD professor Max and his wife and daughter contend with their own hardships and clashes of beliefs.
An ambitious piece with a wide-spread viewpoint, Stoppard’s play can be hard to follow during its first act – the passage of time isn't entirely clear, and the fact that scenes take place years apart rather than hours or days doesn’t always come across. The writing itself, unsurprisingly given the author’s standing, is strong and emotionally charged, but understanding the weight and intent of individual scenes only does so much to tie them together, and the sheer amount of going on borders on overwhelming. The play’s penultimate sequence, in which both the text and production become more insular and tightly-wound, brought such a remarkable spark to the evening that its conclusion only served to highlight the net being cast too wide prior.
Nathaniel Parker, as brashly communist Max, wears the decades of plot well, growing authentically throughout his performance and giving enough drive and emotional heft to not make his clinging to the old days in his later years a cause for eye-rolling. Parker also shares a measured, fragile chemistry with Nancy Carroll, as both his wife Eleanor and the grown-up version of their daughter, Esme. Carroll carries the painful memories in both parts with an immaculate strength and helps to ground us in the reality of their situations. For vastly different reasons, both women are intensely struggling, something Carroll brings real weight to and provides an easy-to-follow shorthand for.
As Jan, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd must navigate the most difficult-to-follow plotline, as Jan returns to his home country only to be hounded by the Socialist party, have his property destroyed, spend a period of imprisonment for a lack of employment caused by the party, and eventually earn a position as a college professor. Fortune-Lloyd’s performance is something of a mixed-bag, truly living in the moment and bringing to life the struggle between principle and preservation at some points, but at others feeling as if he's simply reciting the lines rather than truly understanding the character’s motivations.
Lighting design from Peter Mumford is stylish and striking, turning transitions between scenes into miniature music videos or invoking the clubs the younger crop of characters may enjoy the titular music in. With songs of the era pumped over the speakers during these changes, the impact of the music, and the running theme of art as an incitement and encouragement of rebellion, is present throughout the production.
Anna Reid’s single set, comprised of two entrances which easily become the various locations in both Cambridge and Prague, is utilitarian and effective. A table in the centre and an array of chairs are re-arranged by the actors as they transition into their next scene, allowing the performances and the writing to do the bulk of the immersing – a wise choice for an already-busy play. Raine’s direction brings a sense of unity to the performances – political views aside, these characters are all fully inhabiting the same world. She also makes good use of the space, spreading out the performers to indicate a more spacious, relaxed surrounding or moving them closer together to suggest Jan’s more compact living space.
The work of a famously skilled writer, Rock ‘N’ Roll suffers at times from its own sprawling storyline, and the sheer amount it wants to say at any given time. This attractively staged revival serves as a reminder of the play’s strengths as both a political work and an exploration of a complex history, but also of its faults – too broad a scope, too twee and tidy an ending. Not to be counted out, and certainly a welcome foil to the barrage of festive shows elsewhere, there's a lot to love here, and for many some good old-fashioned Rock ‘N’ Roll will always be a winner.
Rock ‘N’ Roll plays at Hampstead Theatre until January 27th
For tickets and information visit https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2023/rock-n-roll/
Photos by Manuel Harlan