Review of ‘Dinner with Groucho’: “Too much fandom onstage”

Irish troupe B*spoke Theatre Company lands in London for a strictly limited season to revive its latest gamble, starring two of the greatest artists (of very different kinds) of the last century. Guillermo Názara reviews this new hybrid of play and musical, to share his thoughts on this story dwelling in both the realms of dreams and reality.

Don’t mess with the dead and they won’t mess with you. If only I had listened instead of succumbing to my plainest instincts when I was offered joining a Ouija session, maybe the dark forces of evil wouldn’t have got into my soul and hence I wouldn’t have become a critic. The reality is I never did – the demon was already inside me when I was born. But whatever the case, it’s true that tampering with the departed (even when that’s achieved through the engines of fiction) is a task controlled, at the very least, by the art of treachery.

History being rewritten is not, by any means, something new or refreshing – let alone something you haven’t heard of (in excrutiating abudance) in the last few years. From the traditional artistic license to accomodating facts so they align with a particular political position, it’s incredible what people’s imaginaton can come up with for better and worse – the latter being a skill many people seem especially endowed with when it comes to others’ image. Nonetheless, the escape from reality is a crave that not only dwells in viewers’ lust, for breaking the chains of truthfulness is a need any writer (or creator, for that matter) will face not just for their own recreation, but for the sake of art itself.

Dinner with Groucho parts precisely from that premise. It may have never happened, but what if it had? Despite both being American, writers and worldwide acclaimed in their times (a quality they still haven’t lost as of today), did Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot ever have a chance to tell each other about their mutual admiration? Apparently not. It may be more than one dream – as perhaps such adulation never existed (I know, I can’t repress the bitch in me), but it’s certainly interesting to explore what would have occured should those two minds of opposite (yet equal) brilliance had once faced each other.

Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Getting into the psyche of any character is an effort of patience and thoroughness – for even when it’s you who has given birth to them, it takes a lot of time and (however surprising it may sound) research into the remotest corners of your own inventiveness, until you can finally challenge through words and acts what their true selves are all about. Obviously, such an effort increases its weight by a few tones if we’re dealing with people that actually existed. But it’s concretely on those occassions when the true ability of a dramatist hatches, providing a bridge from the legend into the actual persona – and bringing out the frail stones that compose its human structure. Sadly, that’s not been the case here.

Summoned by what seems to be a medium (hyphen) restauranteur, the two spirits emerge to start the dinner they much longed for in life but only could have after death. What could have been a marvellous idea gets however soon washed over by a overstudded catalogue of compliments and fun facts about their lives that, apart from not being properly edited within the dialogue, don’t appear to have any purpose in the narrative – if there is any. It may be that they both were fans of each other, it may even be that some of that adulation (but just some) could have made it into the real conversation at some point, but certainly the fondness playwright Frank McGuiness feels for both overshadows what should have been the focus of this (and any) piece: the construction of the characters and their journey within the story.

Directed by Loveday Ingram, the acting of both leads (Ian Bartholomew as Groucho and Greg Hicks as Eliot) looks constrained and lacking some naturality – perhaps because the material itself is not really able to provide any. In addition, the chat gets frequently interrupted by dance numbers whose mission looks totally unclear – giving the impression that they have no further purpose than filling the time. At the end of the day, there’s no path, no evolution of any sort we, as an audience, have experienced – and neither have the characters of the story. Both are left just as before the performance began: still yearning for something to happen.

Good ideas don’t guarantee good results. The most acclaimed authors can be responsible for things we would be stunned to discover they’re from their harvest. Dinner with Groucho counts on a team featuring impressive credits, but fails into delivering up to the standards of their previous achievements. Can it be saved? Yes, it can. But a major makeover is required to come to its rescue.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Dinner with Groucho plays at London’s Arcola Theatre until Sat 10 December. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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