Circa Theatre
March 1-28 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

WHEN I HEARD that Circa had programmed Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll on its main stage I was both excited and worried. Excited because it’s great to see a full-scale production of a Stoppard play, and this one happens to be one of my favourites due to its setting and subject matter. I was worried because large scale productions at Circa have a tendency to rob plays of their dynamism. So I approached opening night with mixed feelings – were they borne out? Well, yes, I am sad to say they were. This is an incredibly challenging play, and despite some excellent performances by the cast, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Rock ‘n’ Roll is a modern epic – it spans three decades and takes politics, revolution, love and music as its themes. The play is alternately set in Cambridge and Prague, and focuses on the personal and political struggles of Max, a Cambridge professor and staunch member of the Communist Party, and his Czech student Jan. Jan’s first hand interaction with the Communist regime in his country, to which he returns following the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968, is contrasted with his professor’s ardent belief in Communist ideology, albeit at a safe distance. Jan is a passionate devotee of rock music – but its identification as a dangerous element by the State renders him an undesirable who needs to be ‘re-educated’. Max’s challenges are more on the home front, as his wife, Eleanor, a feminist Sapphic scholar battles cancer and his flower child daughter, Esme ‘drops out and turns off’.

Aaron Alexander is solid and understated as Jan, although I would have liked to see him played more zealously in the first half of the play (he does after all profess to be returning to Prague to ‘save Socialism’) – it would make his eventual degradation by the State in a quest to make him ‘useful’ more poignant. It is evident that Alexander has worked hard on the role – he is the only member of the cast to fully master the Czech accent. I preferred Jeffrey Thomas’s performance as curmudgeonly Max, increasingly frustrated by his belief that Communism is the ‘right idea in the wrong conditions’. Thomas moves from passionate to laconic with startling speed, injecting some much needed emotional variety into many scenes. Max and Jan’s scenes together are some of the best written in the play, with the two characters embodying the dichotomy between theory and experience.

Michelle Amas is brilliant in her dual roles as Max’s ailing wife Eleanor and as an older post-Hippie era Esme. As Eleanor she is heartbreaking as she struggles with her perceived loss of her femininity but refusing to be defined by her body. Her sharp treatment of post-graduate students of Sappho brings lightness to her character. As the grown-up Esme she generates a considerable amount of empathy in her efforts to hold the wilful members of her cerebral family together while quietly trying to achieve her own goals. Sophie Hambleton brings a nice contrast to her two roles as the younger Esme in the first half of the play and her motivated and brainy daughter Alice in the second half. Max’s granddaughter is shaping up to be an early 90s intellectual – where brains means business – and her bossy treatment of her boyfriend/‘official shag’ Stephen (James Conway-Law), as they prepare for a fraught dinner party, is hilarious.

The play has a number of supporting characters in a variety of bad wigs. Tina Regtien is somewhat miscast as Czech hippie Lenka and she sounds like a Russian Bond villainess, but the role is the weakest in the play – her development from boundary pushing, barefoot scholar to Max’s companion is hollow. The scene in which she debates consciousness versus physiology with Max becomes laboured rather than intellectually playful. Laura Hill is fairly average as Jan’s sexy but faithless Czech girlfriend Magda, but does better in a later scene as the repugnant Candida. Richard Knowles does a credible job as the signature-collecting activist Ferdinand, although the most memorable elements of his performance for me were his ridiculous wig and too tight pants. Conway-Law doesn’t really get to show his depth in his minor roles, and neither does Gavin Rutherford, although the latter actor is menacing as a Party official from the Ministry of the Interior in one short scene.

In creating Stoppard’s theatrical ‘world’, the production designers have done an excellent job. The set (designed by John Hodgkins) in particular is excellent and ambiguous enough to span the 22 odd years of the play. The fantastic revolving stage makes changes between a Cambridge garden and a Prague flat relatively seamless and reinforces the key motif of records and the theme of revolution itself. The design is complemented by an audio visual banner projected across the top of the set (designed by Andrew Brettell). This allows the audience to keep up with the time and place of each scene and also offered topical, and at times humorous, imagery from each year. Thomas Press’s sound design is in general appropriate to the show – although I would have liked it to be louder, in order to give a sense of the fervour rock ‘n’ roll is meant to incite in the characters, particularly Jan.

Overall, this production does not adequately manage to chart the inherent tension in this play between the personal and the political – it is both a family drama and an examination of the fall of a political ideology. Aside from fleeting moments of Amas’s performance as Eleanor, I left feeling strangely emotionally unaffected. Director Susan Wilson has failed to capture the elusive hope that lies at the heart of the piece – as this is not really established there is little to loose in the end. Many of the scenes lack the variety and dynamic required to retain interest in the wordy debates and lofty concepts that characterise this play. Finally, the play is let down by the poorly executed final scene. Instead of going out with a blast of rock and roll, the play ends with a half-hearted glimpse of a group at a Rolling Stones concert in Prague in 1990. While the scene has been criticised as somewhat unnecessary to the play, Wilson could have injected it with more oomph. Given the high production standard evident in other scenes in the play it should not have been too difficult for the finale to have more impact.

Ultimately my initial apprehension about this production was correct – it’s great to see a Stoppard play on stage, but this is a conservative and overly methodical production, lacking the passion and excitement of rock ‘n’ roll.