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FringeReview UK 2022

Dinner With Groucho

Arcola Theatre and b*spoke, The Civic, Belfast Arts Festival, Oxford Playhouse

Genre: Biographical Drama, Comedy, Drama, International, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Arcola Theatre Studio 1


Low Down

Directed by Loveday Ingram, Set Designer Adam Wiltshire, Costume Designer Joan Bergin, Lighting Design Paul Keogan, Choreographer David Bolger, Composer & Sound Designer Conor Linehan, Costume Design Associate Gabriel O’Brien, Magic Consultant Pat Fallon, Hair & Make Up Patsy Giles

Production Manager Eamon Fox, Stage Manager Audrey Cepeda, , ASM Rachel Spratt, Abigail Cepeda, Chief LX John Crudden, Set Construction Restaging, Scenic Artist Michael Cummins

Associate Artist Jane Brennan, Production Associate Rachel Heyburn, Graphic Designer Tim Everett, Programme & Web Designer Benedict Stenning

Rehearsal Photos Martin Nagie, Photography Barry McCall and Ross Kavanagh, Photoshoot styling Catherine Condell, Photoshoot Make-Up Sarah McCann, PR Bowe Communications, JComms, Kate Morley PR, Production, Marketing Niamh Honer, Promo Film David Merriman and Jim Sheridan. Producer Alison McKenna

Till December 17th


“Not duck” Tom says. Not the chicken soup they’re having. “Duck Soup – you made it.” “I never tasted it – I couldn’t have.” Says its maker.

Not another film great beginning with G? Greta Garbo has a way with Frank McGuinness too. But after his whimsical if uncompelling  Greta Garbo Came to Donegal (Tricycle 2010) nothing prepares us twelve years on for the Arcola’s UK premiere – straight from Dublin – of his one-act feast of honey-barbed artichokes in Dinner With Groucho; where Garbo’s referenced playfully and resoundingly dropped.

After all when Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot finally meet in June 1964 after three years of epistolary bromance, they’ve other things on their wit, including one elephant that not only reverses into the room but dances like a baby pachyderm.

Indeed the spectacle of the not-really-aged Tom Eliot (Greg Hicks) and Groucho Marx (Ian Bartholomew) dancing – often with the mysterious Proprietor (Ingrid Craigie) – tells you McGuinness imagines these titular titans sharing a roomful of imagination. They really did meet after those enthused three years, but dinner? With champagne and chicken soup (not Duck) Groucho of course. Steak from some passageway and floor sawdust in 1964? Eliot’s. The Proprietor though? McGuinness seems by the end to have plucked her from the middle part of Beckett’s fortune.

Directed by Loveday Ingram, Arcola’s Studio 1 proves an ideal space for Adam Wiltshire’s modest circular table and chairs over that sawdust, with Michael Cummins’ cloudy backdrop lit through an eon it seems of possible days by Paul Keogan. With Joan Bergin’s elegant costumes it could be any time after the war, but then who comes to this establishment? If that all suggests a static eternity (and where in 1964 are we really?), then the spectacle of Bartholomew and Hicks – sometimes with Craigie – partnered to David Bolger’s choreography is too delicious even for the set of entrées it serves as.

The greatest moment’s when Marie Lloyd’s referenced – famously eulogised on her death in 1922 by Eliot – and “My old man” gets a workout. As do other songs, arranged and given spooky agency by Conor Linehan. Conversely it’s Bartholomew who springs surprises singing: “Meet Me in St Louis” provoking Eliot to acknowledge his roots, and in a pin-drop moment Groucho’s reciting Marianne Moore’s famous  poem ‘Silence’. He immediately guys it with ”that lady never played New Jersey”.

Tom’s game too, when not being a Possum, wit for wit, and beguiles the master of comedy with magic tricks – handkerchiefs and eggs – Pat Fallon’s work very droll here. And the Proprietor provides entrées of her own, litanic verses on her identity starting with an anaphoric “Perhaps” and “Perhaps you will devour me” which considering her agency seems unlikely even if she offers crab. And if there’s crab claws to be eaten they’re immediately “scuttling across” and we’re inevitably winked at with half an Eliot line. There’s an episode with an Albatross imitation that turns into a Coleridgean purgatory. Is this why the Proprietor has strange powers of speech and serves Eliot again and again with the same gnomic “Perhaps”? With an imaginary character. Still it’s Groucho springing switchbacks and denials, edging towards the unsaid.

This arrives at the start of the third scene “The Bill” which in some languages translates as ‘The Reckoning’. When the Proprietor presents one she might have presented to the Worshipful Company in 1607 (how many dozen swans and hog-heads are they meant to have consumed?) it’s clear as Eliot elegantly intervenes the Proprietor always presents the same bill. But the reckoning’s elsewhere.

“Jewish champagne” and “as much as you admire their country” is Groucho taking on Eliot’s known late exculpatory comments on his known anti-Semitism. “Are you ashamed” Groucho probes and after some Eliotian manoeuvres – McGuinness is elegant with pastiche – “if I should speak” hardly covers Eliot’s denial with reticence. “Would you drink champagne from the state of Israel?” “ That would depend… Who was pouring.” McGuinness refuses to drive the interrogatory home. Groucho wouldn’t have, he concludes, so leaves Eliot scuttling elegantly.

Hicks is mordantly funny as straight-man Eliot delivering tricks, looking the part, daring to part his hair behind. Bartholomew, made up spectacularly by Patsy Giles, has to register not only paradoxical intent in almost every sentence, and subtle anti-Possum jibes, but sudden gravitas; just as Hicks jumps Eliot to singing Lloyd. It’s a twinkling and wholly convincing double-act. Craigie relishes playing off this to produce registers of playful authority, teasingly gnomic pronouncements and a sibyl presence – who might just lend a hand in the workings of the universe. Or not.

How can you puncture such a brilliant soufflé with pivotal revelation? It’s a more subtle work than any conventionally-twisted imaginarium though. And Proprietor who invokes the opening Prospero-like with “Bones, rest quietly./Earth, lie lightly./But now- rise,  rise “ has to conclude somehow.

75 minutes later that’s a teasing notion. In a very different way to Brian Friel’s Afterplay, McGuinness produces one of his finest works wrought from the sawdust of others and rendered it the burst of stars that irradiate the end. The bright play is done, and we are for the dark.