In the provincial pre-Internet dark ages when I was a drama student, we hungered for news of London openings and were agog for details when our lecturer had seen the ‘hot new play’ by cutting-edge dramatist Tom Stoppard which was setting London alight, not to mention featuring 1970s sex symbol Diana Rigg, who was justly famous not only for being karate-kicking Mrs Peel in The Avengers but also for getting her bits out on stage in Abelard and Heloise.

Time moves on, of course: my drama tutor wisely left the business to prop up a bar in Greece, and the magnificent Dame Diana is no longer quite so cutting-edge. Neither, unfortunately, is Mr Stoppard, and his treatise on the interrelationship of God, truth and goodness feels impenetrably stale and lifeless in an era in which we’re used to our science and philosophy delivered in perky soundbites by Professor Brian Cox or airport paperbacks by Alain de Botton.

George is a professor of Moral Philosophy. His wife Dotty (there’s a clue) is a former musical comedy star on the verge of a nervous breakdown. While George struggles to rehearse his lecture on the existence of God, Dotty throws a party to celebrate the electoral success of the Radical Liberals and the moon landing. Someone dies, and the murder is investigated by an absurdist police inspector while George’s logical-positivist academic rival, Professor McFee, woos Dotty with increasingly sinister intent.

Stoppard’s such a chamaeleon: with the philosophy lecture he’s trying to be Bernard Shaw, with the murder mystery plot he’s trying to be Joe Orton, and with his more pithy epigrams he’s aping Oscar Wilde – but there are times when you wish he’d just man up and be Tom Stoppard, because he’s less than brilliant at farce, and his lecturing really is interminable.

Stoppard’s reference to Bernard Shaw is interesting because it takes an experienced Shavian actor, and possibly also an intellectual, to pull off the complexity and verbal tricks of George’s philosophising. Perhaps that’s why of all the actors who have attempted the role – including Paul Eddington in the celebrated ‘Felicity Kendal’ revival – only Cambridge brainbox Simon Russell Beale at the National in 2003 came away with the same sort of glowing notices he earned recently for his portrayal of Undershaft in Major Barbara.

In a nice twist of casting, Paul Eddington’s son Toby plays George in this Tabard production, but he hasn’t inherited his father’s suavely patrician delivery, and whilst he looks and sounds the absent-minded professor down to his cable-knit cardigan and brogues, occasionally dipping in to the ‘lecture notes’ to refresh his memory of the script, his discourse is too halting and obtuse, and you get the impression that he doesn’t really understand it either.

The staging is inventive and also nicely 1970s-nostalgic, and although the best verbal and physical acrobatics are reserved for those who hold out until after the interval (there were escapees), ultimately the fun of the second act isn’t enough to reward you for the pain of the first. I’d recommend the production mainly for students or enthusiasts of Stoppard, because it’s a rare revival.

Date reviewed: Friday 7th September 2012

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.