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Dinner with Groucho

by on 22 November 2022

Out of This World

Dinner with Groucho

by Frank McGuinness

b*spoke theatre company at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston until 10th December

Review by Melissa Syversen

As I entered Studio One at the Arcola, I was quite taken with the beauty of the set for the play Dinner with Groucho.  Designed by Adam Wiltshire, the set immediately tells you that we are somewhere otherworldly.  There are lights encased in different sized bubbles hanging from the ceiling, a backdrop of sky and ocean against a wall of stars.  On the ground there is sand and discarded oyster shells and in the middle of it all, an intimate dinner table and chairs.  We are about to dine at the edge of existence it seems.

Dinner with Groucho is inspired by the unlikely and by some accounts, uneasy friendship between poet T.S.Eliot and comedian Groucho Marx, here played by Greg Hicks and Ian Bartholomew respectively.  Both seminal figures in their fields, these men shared a letter correspondence starting in 1961 and finally met in person for dinner in 1964.  This play is an imaginary take on what that dinner might have been like, though not in a naturalistic way.  Instead we are somewhere in the afterlife, at ‘the edge of heaven’ eating at a restaurant run by a seemingly quite batty female proprietor played wonderfully by Ingrid Craigie.

The transcendental nature of the piece is further underlined with cleverly playful details by director Loveday Ingram.  Rather than having food and drink on stage, drinks are poured with the help of sound effects.  Glasses clink without touching.  The characters break into song, as bottles of champagne are popped open.  It adds to the feel that what we are seeing is a shadow play of sorts, one that takes place over and over again.  It is left open to interpretation of what we are really watching.  The play starts with the proprietor quite literally summoning the two men into being.  As to who or what the nature of the proprietor is, is also left unexplained.  Is she God?  Is she a medium channelling the two men so that they can relive their dinner forever?  Who knows? 

Apart from his famous comedic look of grease paint, glasses and a cigar, and that he was a part of the Marx brothers, I know very little about the life of Groucho Marx.  Much the same with T.S Eliot.  I know he wrote The Waste Land, that he was a Nobel prize laureate, and due to my love of the musical Cats as a child, I own a copy of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.  Any other details about these men however, I only now know thanks to a deep dive on Wikipedia after seeing the play.  Now, obviously all theatre can’t be for everyone all the time, and I’ll be the first to admit that I probably wasn’t the target audience for this play.  I just don’t have the depth of knowledge to fully appreciate the number of references and allusions to the two men’s lives and body of work that I am sure is present in McGuinness’s text.  However, if large parts of the audience have to do homework to understand most of a piece of theatre, I’d argue that at least some passages might be worthy of a rewrite.  Other plays with similar structures of fictional takes on the meetings of well-known persons, such as John Logan’s Peter and Alice or Janet Langhast Cohens’ Anne and Emmett tend to use such a premise as a jump off point to explore larger societal or emotional themes.  Dinner with Groucho, does not really do that.  Playwright Frank McGuinness is not much interested in providing any answers, seemingly quite happy to just let our three characters go through eternity together by the sheer strength of their personalities, fuelled by the quirky fact that these very different men were once friendly with one another.

Though coming in at a short seventy minutes, Dinner with Groucho somehow feels longer than it is despite many fun moments.  There are Vaudeville dance numbers, an entertaining riff on the plot of King Lear and recreations of classic Marx brother slapstick.  But the play is also too short to really dig into anything of substance.  Even touching on the tension between T.S.Eliot’s history of antisemitism and the fact that Groucho was a Jewish man, is cut short before it goes anywhere worthwhile.  After some short provocations by Groucho, Eliot firmly shuts it down with a tart “The subject is closed”. 

There is also a disparity of how the two men are portrayed.  Brought to life with a lot of warmth and intellectual depth by Greg Hicks, T.S.Eliot comes across as more human, even though he performs a magic trick or two, and he often leads most of the conversation.  Groucho, though played with plenty of charm and playfulness by Ian Bartholomew, comes more across as a heightened copy of his comedic roles than the actual person behind the persona.  Though they may be spirits, only one feels like a human.  Even in death, Groucho is depicted with the trademark grease paint moustache and bushy eyebrows, though the real Groucho Marx grew out a full moustache in his later years rather than deal with the paint.  Was the production worried that the audience wouldn’t recognize Groucho without the grease paint, as was often the case when Marx was alive?

For admirers of T.S.Eliot and-or Groucho Marx, Dinner with Groucho is definitely a play worth seeing.  However, for the uninitiated like myself, despite the obvious skill and efforts of b*spoke theatre company and its first-rate cast, there is a good chance you might leave the theatre at a loss as to what Dinner with Groucho was ultimately about. 

Melissa Syversen, November 2022

Photography by Ros Kavanagh

From → Arcola Theatre, Drama

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