This regional premiere – staged eight years after its debut in London – is a brave piece of scheduling by Salisbury Playhouse, but not everyone on the first night was prepared to stay the course of Stoppard’s dazzling wordplay on the nature of love, life choices and translations of Catullus.
This is full blown Stoppard, nigh on three hours of intellectual debate, stimulating to those up to the verbal gymnastics spouted by Housman and contemporaries like Wilde and John Ruskin but bemusing to others less well versed in classical scholarship.
Certainly it is finely acted. There isn’t a weak link in the cast and Richard Beecham directs with a sure touch but visually, Liz Cooke’s design lacks excitement.
There are some nice touches – the boat taking AE Housman and his chums on jolly boating trips on the Cherwell and the Stygian transport rising from the depths to take him on a longer journey.
Christopher Ravenscroft is riveting as Housman senior, finding the detached amusement and pain of regret needed as past rejections and failures tumble from his memory. As his younger counterpart, Robin Laing gives a finely nuanced performance, hinting at the inner turmoil of the young Housman and the disappointed man he will become.
Edward Bennett is an engaging Pollard, toothsome of grin and fruitily voiced and Clive Standen captures Jackson’s masculine innocence.
Others stand out – Jonathan Newth’s scandalised Jowett, the bombastic Harris of Peter Shorey, Malcolm Rennie’s Macawber-like Ruskin and Donald McBride’s wonderful London cabbie take on the ferryman.