The neglect of this Tom Stoppard play is odd given that some commentators, including John Tydeman who directed the first production for BBC radio in 1972, believe it to be among his finest. Ignored since then even by radio, the medium for which it was written, the drama’s most recent stage production at the Old Red Lion in 2009 failed to set reviewers on fire.
Directed now by Gordon House, this is the production this play deserves with the lead actors relishing the comedy – revelatory, waspish, vaudevillian – as much as the contemplation of irony versus sincerity and truth versus melodrama.
Canonically it comes between Jumpers (1972), which also fields a murder mystery as the backdrop to intellectual debate, and Travesties (1974), set in 1917, which examines modern art and misidentification.
An investigation into the death of an artist found at the bottom of the stairs by his two roommates spirals into a discussion of art and perception as the trio – more voluble versions of certain Beckett characters – move in calibrated fashion back to World War I and forward again.
Ian McDiarmid as Donner is ringingly assertive while Geoffrey Whitehead, playing Marbello, is trenchant and irate. Derek Jacobi, whimsical and lightly ironic as Beauchamp, uses a recorded art form to showcase the limits of knowledge, masterfully displayed when his accidental taping of Donner’s death plunge is variously misinterpreted.
This is one of the many ways in which Stoppard responds to the demands of radio with vigorous wit – but heart also. A haunting romance featuring a blind woman (a moving, credible performance by Pippa Nixon) injects emotion into a very fine production.