ROUGH CROSSING, AT THE ARTS THEATRE
It is tempting when reviewing a maritime-themed play to draw on a range of easy metaphors: ‘all at sea’, ‘a shipwreck’, ‘cast adrift’, ‘sinking fast’ and so on. Such un-seaworthy verbal vessels came to mind when pondering on the drama which opened at the Arts Theatre last night. All seemed so promising – a comedy by Tom Stoppard, songs by the late Andre Previn; what could possibly go wrong?
‘Rough Crossings’ is an adaption by our national treasure of a 1920s comedy by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar. Written in the mid 1980s, it has rarely been revived and it is certainly a work I have never come across. Was this a hidden gem; a lost masterwork?
The answer is ‘alas not’. Set on board a cruise liner with a rather beautiful Art Deco set gleaming with a 1st class deck and a grand ballroom, this was shipboard malarkey attempting to recreate the stylish Hollywood comedies of the 1930s. Stoppard’s conceit is promising: a playwright, producer and composer take a cruise during which they are to write a musical play about characters taking a cruise. They have run out of ideas but their experience on board feeds into the script. The self-references are clever at least to begin with. Characters begin by talking about a play that emerges as they speak. It potentially has those layers of reality that the writer brilliantly created in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Sadly such a comparison cannot be made with this play. ‘Rough Crossings’ is a paper-thin farce with just a few flashes of brilliance – but too few to save it from being one of the least satisfying offerings from the Arts. Too few to prevent comparisons with the Marie Celeste.
The six-strong cast work their sea legs off to attempt a rescue of this leaky comedy. They have to swim against a very strong current of a confusing, and at times unintelligible plot lightened by the very occasional flash of Stoppardian wit (the best line by far was when one character says of the lifeboats, ‘Those women and children don’t give an inch’). Charlie Stemp was the most watchable actor as the novice steward, a high energy Fawlty Towers’ Manuel who forever denies the writer (a mannered John Partridge) of his cognac (a running joke that soon runs out of engine-room steam). Previn’s bland songs did little to lighten the evening nor prevent your reviewer from over-using his galley of negative nautical metaphors. The next play ahoy!