Dinner With Groucho – Arcola Theatre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Frank McGuinness

Director: Loveday Ingram

It seems impossible that the fiercely intellectual T. S. Eliot would write a fan letter to Groucho Marx, the master of physical comedy. But, on the other hand, perhaps it’s not that strange at all. Both dealt in words: Eliot’s poetry: Marx’s self-depreciating one-liners. Their first meeting in a quiet restaurant in London in the 1960s is imagined by another wordsmith, Irish dramatist Frank McGuinness, in a new play packed with too much comedy.

We join them eating chicken soup. Not, as Eliot quips, duck soup, a reference, of course, to Marx’s most famous film. Theirs is a strange relationship, forged initially through letters, and both can’t quite believe that they are in each other’s company, their ‘occupations’ seemingly so disparate. Dinner With Groucho at first promises to be a play of ideas.

But it’s stranger than that. The restaurant is an odd one, and the owner, only known as the Proprietor, acts as if she inhabits a much older decade than the 60s. She is so selective with her clientele that Eliot and Marx are the only customers in the establishment. She’s almost Victorian or Edwardian and belts out songs from music hall days. It’s no surprise to see Marx joining in the routine; after all he got his big break in vaudeville. But surely the dour and serious Eliot wouldn’t sing and dance so energetically to The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery?

If the restaurant is out of time, then so is Eliot who feels that he is waning like the moon. Old age is at his edges. In contrast, Groucho is just Groucho; he’s not quite ready to be talking about dying. Instead he tells a shaggy dog story about King Lear’s Cordelia who, he claims, was actually a boy disguised as a girl. But these tales along with the dance sections are only mildly amusing and the banter between the three characters is wearying after 30 minutes or so.

The play is saved somewhat by its end where the speeches of the Proprietor echo ‘The Waste Land’, and where the comedy is swapped for poignancy. The three actors put in convincing performances especially Ian Bartholomew as Marx with his stuck-on eyebrows. Greg Hicks is Eliot, but not the Eliot we usually think of. He’s more convivial even when he’s being snooty. Ingrid Craigie gives the Proprietor a sense of faded glamour and, even if she does belong to another time, there were plenty of women in Soho like her running coffeehouses and late night drinking dens right up to the end of the 1990s.

The glass baubles that hang above Adam Wiltshire’s set suggest that we have been spun out of the universe for 70-minutes where another version of Eliot exists. It’s frustrating that the humour is just not that funny, but by the end we realise we’ve never the left ‘The Waste Land’ at all.

Runs until 10 December 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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