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BWW Review: TRAVESTIES, Apollo Theatre

"What did you do during the war, Dada?" Somewhere underneath the relentless punning and the pastiche, the whistle-stop wit and the whirling theoretical debate, there's a seriousness to Tom Stoppard's 1974 Travesties that feels horribly prescient. The intellectual hijinks are genuinely hilarious, but there's no disguising the weight of the question they restlessly scamper over and clamber round: what can artists do when faced with social crisis? Can their work claim political agency, or are they just schoolboys with a chit to get them off chores, daubing happily away in a corner?

The world has changed since Patrick Marber's giddy romp of a production packed out the Menier Chocolate Factory last year. Theoretical conflicts have become very real, and the revolutionary spirit of the play's 1917 setting has found an unexpected echo exactly 100 years later. The play has remained much the same, but there's a new edge to its manic questioning, a new weight to its clowning that's not unwelcome.

Stoppard's ingenious fantasy places us in 1917 Zurich, home to "refugees, spies, exiles, painters, poets, writers and radicals of all kinds". Here history managed to gather figures including James Joyce (directing a production of The Importance of Being Earnest), founder of Dadaism Tristan Tzara and Lenin, so Stoppard goes one further and makes them literally collide, together with the female characters of Wilde's play, in the giddily unreliable memories of one Henry Carr - a minor consular official.

The result is exhausting in its ingenuity - a literary crossword puzzle that's less cryptic than outright impossible. But such is the energy of Stoppard's writing and the pace and pulse of Marber's production that the audience is carried along on their theatrical thrill-ride, and you emerge feeling frankly cleverer than you have any right to.

Much of this is down to the twinkling, mischievous charm of Tom Hollander's Henry Carr, the ringmaster in this ideological circus. Benign and boater-wearing as an old man, he reveals hints of an altogether less amiable self in the flashback fantasies - a self-absorbed poseur with a penchant for good tailoring, determined to play the hero in any given narrative. Set against the all-embracing boyish excesses of Freddie Fox's Tzara, Hollander's acid restraint cuts sharply. As a double act it's intoxicating, making much of Stoppard's set-piece of an ideological debate.

The play's other set-pieces emerge with equal clarity, lovingly polished into warmth and new humour by Marber. Cecily's (the gloriously hearty Clare Foster) disquisition on Marxism becomes a saucy striptease routine, while her music-hall song battle with Amy Morgan's arch Gwendolen is all backbiting bitchery and affected politesse.

Framed in Tim Hatley's labyrinth of a library, Marber's action catches and amplifies the absurdity of the original. Neil Austin's chameleon lighting neatly transports us from the music hall to an Anna Karenina-style railway and back out of the rabbit hole again. Forbes Masson's Duracell bunny of a dictator, forever bursting through doorways and leaping to action, gets some rare pause and space for his speechifying, and Peter McDonald stage-manages the whole as an inscrutable Joyce, "a contradictory spokesman for the truth".

There's always a danger that, given its head, Stoppard's cleverness can bulldoze all in its path. Here, Marber tempers it with just enough nonsense, and finds the funny without losing the hammer concealed at the heart of this riotous, necessary piece of cultural vandalism.

Travesties is at the Apollo Theatre until 29 April

Read our interview with Amy Morgan

Picture Credit: Johann Persson

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From This Author Alexandra Coghlan