Oxford Playhouse, Mon 13 April - Sat 18 April 2015
Tom Stoppard's 1993 masterpiece covers a startling amount of ground in just over two hours, including, inter alia, Byronic poetry, landscape gardening, carnal embrace, the second law of thermodynamics, chaos theory, determinism vs free will, and Fermat's last theorem. The result of this being that the play made the shortlist for the Royal Institution's 2006 list of ‘best science books ever written'.
Taking place simultaneously in the early-19th and late-20th centuries, the play recounts the events that unfold at Sidely Park, an English country house, and the subsequent efforts of literary historians to piece them together. Septimus Hodge (Wilf Scolding) is tutor to the precocious Thomasina (Dakota Blue Richards), who Stoppard uses to explore various concepts in maths and physics, while the plot revolves around the affairs of Hodge with the older female members of the household, including the wonderfully larger-than-life Lady Croom (Kirsty Besterman). In the present, Bernard Nightingale (Robert Cavanagh) is an academic determined to make his name by implicating Lord Byron in the historical events. He is reluctantly assisted by author Hannah Jarvis (Flora Montgomery), who is researching her own book on the events at Sidely Park. As the play progresses, the lines between past and present begin to blur as the modern historians edge closer to the truth.
This English Touring Theatre production, directed by Blanche McIntyre, does full justice to Stoppard's work, keeping the events fizzing along - no mean feat during some of the technical exposition necessary to explain concepts such as mathematical iteration and thermodynamics. Particular praise therefore goes to Scolding's witty, charming Septimus, and Ed MacArthur as the frustrated mathematician Valentine, a modern-day resident of Sidley Park. In general, though, the strongest performances are from the female characters, with Richards, Besterman and Montgomery bringing Stoppard's characters vividly to life.
If the production had a flaw, it was in the slightly odd acoustics at times, which left some audience members struggling to catch occasional snatches of dialogue in the play's faster sections. Whether this was down to the set design or actors is unclear, but it may simply have been a minor opening-night glitch that can be corrected during the week. Either way, it is not something that should prevent anyone from trying to catch a highly enjoyable performance of what many critics believe to be the best play of the late-20th century.