Rough Crossing – Theatre Royal, Nottingham

Writer: Tom Stoppard

Director: Rachel Kavanaugh

Reviewer: Dave Smith

It is entirely possible that somewhere deep within Rough Crossingthere’s actually a work of genius still just waiting to be unearthed by the right director and the right cast. This can’t be entirely ruled out as a theory because Tom Stoppard has, of course, written some of the finest British plays of the late 20th century. It’s a career that’s been short on failure.

Now, 35 years on from the original production, we’re presented with another revival that no one asked for (under the banner of Bill Kenwright Productions and with Rachel Kavanaugh directing), one that will surely soon disappear over the horizon into deserved oblivion, and we’re still none the wiser. Coward-lite musical comedy and intellectual absurdism continue to prove a bad mix.

It’s the 1930s, and heading towards New York on the SS Italian Castle, playwrights Sandor Turai (John Partridge) and Alex Gal (Matthew Cottle) are polishing off their latest masterpiece, The Cruise of the Dodo. Also on board are their French composer and two of their stars. Composer Adam Adam (Rob Ostlere) is the current beau of their leading lady, the glamorous Natasha Navratilova (Issy van Randwyck). Meanwhile their leading man, and Natasha’s former lover, English actor Ivor Fish (Simon Dutton), has decided that now is the time to declare his love for Natasha, a declaration overheard by the distraught Adam, who is already suffering from a speech impediment caused by the impending release of his mother from prison. With our heroes struggling to find an ending to their masterpiece, Turai has an idea that will not only save their play but also ensure that true love wins out.

Throw in a cognac swilling cabin steward (Charlie Stemp), a storm and possible shipwreck, and that much overused staple the ‘play within a play’ (to be fair, it probably wasn’t so overused in 1984, although Stoppard had used it far more successfully just two years earlier in The Real Thing) and the scene is surely set for a hilarious series of misunderstandings and some classic Stoppard wordplay.

It starts promisingly enough with a fine period set created by Colin Richmond, but it all goes very quickly downhill from there as the cast race through proceedings, thus ensuring that what finer points do exist in the script – and there are a handful of good lines to be discovered if you really concentrate – are generally lost in the melee. The bonus to this pace is that the whole thing is wrapped up in two hours, including the interval.

It would, however, be unfair to blame the cast for too much of what goes on, although none – with the possible exception of Charlie Stemp as the steward Dvornichek – really shows any sign of actually believing in what he or she is doing. It’s hard to believe that at some point Kavanaugh didn’t just take a step back and realise that it wasn’t working.

Despite the speed, it’s basically very dull. Laughs and narrative coherence are in short supply, and the romantic couple at the heart of it all barely exchange a word until the final ten minutes or so. What humour is derived from Adam’s speech impediment is essentially lifted from a 1980 Two Ronniessketch. Even the songs, specially written for the original production by André Previn, lack any signs of life.

Perhaps, after all, it is just a bad play.

Runs Until 20 April 2019 and on tour | Image: Pamela Raith Photography

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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