REVIEW: Dinner with Groucho at Oxford Playhouse - 'strange surreal flights of fancy'
It’s been a busy couple of months for late comic geniuses at the Playhouse.
Following on from the visit of SPIKE, which brought Spike Milligan and his Goon Show accomplices Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe to life on the Beaumont Street stage, along comes the ringmaster of the legendary Marx Brothers – Groucho himself.
However, while the gag-laden SPIKE could not be accused of taking itself too seriously, Frank McGuinness’s Dinner With Groucho is a much more conceptual re-imagining of a meeting between Marx and the award-winning poet, essayist and playwright T.S. Eliot.
Read again: Dinner with Groucho is a feast of theatrical talent through eyes of iconic comic and poet
Although based on real life – the pair met in 1964 after corresponding by letter for several years and were fans of one another’s work – the play is set in an other-worldly restaurant, run by the Proprietor (Ingrid Craigie).
Just what forces have brought them together are unclear, although they appear to have been summoned by a séance. Events get stranger as the evening continues, with surreal interludes, flights of fancy, bouts of nonsense, and the odd Vaudevillian dance routine punctuating the characters’ conversation.
Groucho (Ian Bartholomew) brings his trademark moustache, cigar, and silly walks, but not quite enough of his wisecracks for my liking. However, we do get to see a more serious, intellectual side to the irreverent comic as he trades words and ideas with the renowned poet (played by Greg Hicks).
Dinner with Groucho Oxford with actors Ian Bartholomew, and Greg Hicks and, centre, Ingrid Craigie . Picture by Ed Nix
Eliot’s antisemitism is skirted around in a tense exchange after the Jewish comedian brings up the subject of Israeli Champagne, while Marx’s theory on Shakespeare’s King Lear – involving the role of cholesterol – is one of the highlights.
However, the play tries to be too clever – or maybe I wasn’t clever enough. The chemistry between the characters seemed off and the interchanges left me cold.
Cragie’s appearances as our enigmatic and eccentric hostess helped inject the play with some much-needed energy, and reminded us of the real Groucho Marx’s on-screen encounters with his favourite battle-axe Margaret Dumont. It also reminded us of the anarchy we were missing here.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only person craving an appearance by Harpo and Chico to prick some of the pomposity on show.
Dinner With Groucho is at the Oxford Playhouse until tonight, Saturday November 5. Tickets from oxfordplayhouse.com