Monday 1st April 2019 at The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds.
In Tom Stoppard’s comedy Rough Crossing we’re taken to sea with a sparse cast of actors playing a very sparse cast of inept actors rehearsing aboard a ship. Our cast have a tall order to deliver. Although the cast are a talented bunch hailing from hugely successful productions past, there’s something altogether muted and vague about this production as a whole.
The plot is suitably quirky. Turai and Gal (John Partridge and Matthew Cottle respectively) are the flailing writing duo trying to pull together a play with no ending and a flimsy beginning and middle.
Now, this play of theirs stars melodramatic actors in melodramatic roles, and there’s as much trickery and dramatics off script as on with Natasha and Ivor (Issy Van Randwyck and Simon Dutton) causing controversy for poor musician Adam (Rob Ostlere).
It’s up to Turai to use his cunning to convince Adam that his muse is a stranger to that old brute, betrayal. In the mix is the Omni-shambolic Dvornicheck, the token fool offered up with endless clownery by Charlie Stemp.
Director Rachel Kavanaugh gets some sharply timed visual gags in nice and early, with Partridge and Stemp being particularly adept (especially when it comes to the increasingly funny disappearing liquor farce). Randwyck too manages to engage with some charicature actress affectations and comic little leg kicks. It’s also Randwyck who lands Stoppard’s jokes most effectively. Partridge finds his best comic turns in sardonic reactions to the shenanigans while Ostlere courts shy guy melodrama like a pro.
Set and costume from Colin Richmond fits the bill, conjuring a grand ship with plush interior befitting the inflated aspirations of this writer-actor group. Lighting and sound design however, must have missed the boat, for such elements feel distinctly absent.
It feels like this should be a lively, bustling affair if the script is anything to go by, but the jokes don’t land as they should. Perhaps it’s pace – the exchanges aren’t sharp enough (although this does perk up in the second act). Interestingly, the programme lists ‘staff on the SS Italian Castle’, a cast of three…the only staff we meet however, is Stemp’s character who is seemingly single-handedly manning every role aboard. Could it be that missing ensemble which causes the production to feel lacking in momentum and action?
Perhaps it’s the lack of sound design, leaving the cast adrift within a lingering sound void and bypassing that necessary sense of action and journey, a vital element considering the fact that the story is at sea in turbulent waters. Mics certainly may have helped to lift the sense of presence of the whole thing.
The most exciting, truly engaging part of the production is the gleeful tap dance sequence delivered by Charlie Stemp and John Partridge (playful, nostalgic choreography from Alistair David) at curtain. With more of that energy, charm and stage presence throughout, this could have been a great production.
This wants to be a situational farce but lacks the energy of delivery to sufficiently achieve that status. It comes across as a straight play with its hands on a script too large for the staging and to an extent, the performances given. It’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Noises Off meets The Habit of Art in intention and in writing, but doesn’t achieve the same comic magic.
When I spotted the cast and creatives list for this show, my theatre-loving heart gave a flutter. I loved John Partridge in La Cage Aux Folles and have been extremely impressed with both Director Rachel Kavanaugh and comic talent Charlie Stemp previously. Stemp starred in the smash hit Half a Sixpence in the West End, where he shone as brightly as…well, a newly shined sixpence. From that knock-out performance he crossed the pond and impressed on Broadway in Hello Dolly just last year. Here, he’s wasted within a tepid production.
Kavanaugh too doesn’t demonstrate her theatrical flair. Having had a hand in that same smash West End hit Half a Sixpence as well as the brilliant The Wind in the Willows at The London Palladium, this show is by comparison…not great. I’m left puzzled, but I concede that there were laughs to be heard from this audience, so there’s clearly enough here to win people over – it’s a case of suck it and see I think!