adapted by Russell Barr, Ian Redford and Max Stafford-Clark from James Boswell.

Arts Theatre Great Newport Street WC2H 7JB To 24 September 2011.
Mon-Thu 8pm Mat Thu & Sat 3pm.
Runs 1hr 20min No interval.

TICKETS: 020 7907 7092
Review: Timothy Ramsden 7 September.

A treasure from the treasurer of the English language.
As Dr Johnson said, “A critic is a species of dung beetle. A fellow who makes himself fat upon other men’s droppings.” Nevertheless, here goes.

Two disappointments at A Dish of Tea (apart from discovering that ‘dish’ merely means ‘cup’). were that Katie, cast as Johnson’s beloved cat Hodge, was not present, and that co-creator of the piece Russell Barr has been taken ill.

A strong replacement has been found in Luke Griffin, who looks right for his main role as the neat young Boswell, Johnson’s companion – Boswell’s biographical books about Johnson provide the piece’s material. When reading speeches, he does so intelligently – and as Boswell spent much of his life writing-down Johnson’s words, the presence of a book is not too intrusive (and may decline with time)

At some performances (9, 10, 21-24 September) Trudie Styler won’t be present. She comes on in the show’s later stage as Johnson’s later-life love Hester Thrale. Her suave female understanding sets-off the otherwise masculine discussions, and is a foil to the suddenly silent Boswell. These two Johnsonians didn’t get on.

This might seem unlikely territory for director Max Stafford-Clark. Yet he’s often visited the 18th-century in revivals and new plays, while his method of closely analysing a script allies him with Johnson, who analysed others’ sayings, his own thoughts, and created the first modern dictionary.

There are plenty of familiar, and witty, lines. But Stafford-Clark, and Ian Redford in his magnificent performance, complete with Lichfield vowels and unkempt manner, also find the soul of this 18th-century pundit and literary personality.

There are moments of Johnson’s huge laughter, and one where he quietens and actual apologises to Boswell. But often the wit and smiles have a reflective quality, and Redford’s face has a distracted look, betraying sadness beneath the energy and sociability.

Johnson comments on the needs to gather friends through life; and he offers his “dish” of tea. Below lies the terror of a lonely existence. Out of Joint’s production catches this well – and reminds that Dusty Hughes’ 1981 play about Johnson and Boswell, Heaven and Hell, is there for the reviving.

Dr Samuel Johnson: Ian Redford.
James Boswell, Anna Williams, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lady Flora MacDonald, King George III, Edward Dilly, John Wilkes: Luke Griffin.
Mrs Hester Thrale: Trudie Styler.
Hodge: Katie.

Director: Max Stafford-Clark.
Design consultant: Tim Shortall.
Lighting: Christopher Nairne.
Costume: Karen Large.
Dialect coach: Charmian Hoare.
Associate director: Des Kennedy.

2011-09-08 09:29:12

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