Review: DINNER WITH GROUCHO, Arcola Theatre

TS Eliot and Groucho Marx have a dinner that isn't quite a dinner

By: Nov. 22, 2022
Review: DINNER WITH GROUCHO, Arcola Theatre
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Review: DINNER WITH GROUCHO, Arcola Theatre Groucho Marx and TS Eliot have both been dead for nearly half a century, so, while many theatregoers will be aware of the general nature of their work (a legendary film comedian and a critically acclaimed poet and academic) few will know much detail of their lives and work. At the end of Frank McGuinness's play (in London after its September premiere in Dublin) they still won't know much.

The two men are having a dinner that isn't a dinner (we see plates, cutlery and bottles, but neither food nor drink) and they appear to be the only guests at a beachside restaurant whose proprietor (Ingrid Craigie in a succession of ball gowns) appears less a restaurateur and more a kind of Greek chorus, fond of the Anglophile Eliot but hostile to the New Yorker, Marx. Bookending the action with addresses to the audience, we learn that she's more a Charon figure, a bridge between an earthly existence and the one to follow.

Ruminating obliquely on such themes provides the substance of the piece, with inevitable echoes of Beckett infiltrating our consciousness. Ian Bartholomew gives us the full Groucho schtick - the painted-on moustache, the cigar, the wisecracks - always ready to defuse a serious matter with a quip. Greg Hicks, stiffened in the spine, is a reflective poet, denigrating his own work and indulging in flights of fancy about King Lear, playing into the theme of old men staring blindly at what comes next. The men admire each other's work (as they did in "real life") but neither is keen to talk about it - frustratingly so.

Director, Loveday Ingram, leavens what could be a very static, very talky 70 minutes with a few song and dance routines that are more decorative than dramatic and the play ends on a downbeat tone.

Quite where to place it though? We get a bit of absurdist comedy, a bit of anti-naturalism stagecraft , a bit of 20th century antisemitism, a bit of vaudeville, a bit of Anglo-American cultural differences, a bit of spiritual philosophising and all with an unseen grim reaper observing this last supper that isn't a supper. Rather like the sawdust on the floor, the play slips through our fingers and, rather like the proprietor, gives us nothing substantial to chew on.

Dinner with Groucho is at the Arcola Theatre until 10 December

Photo Credit: Ros Kavanagh