Friday, 20 February 2009

Rock 'n' Roll - Manchester Library Theatre

Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard
Director: Chris Honer
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is a heart-warming tale of the how Rock ‘n’ Roll music can have the strongest of influences in the most unlikely of places.

This play covers three decades of communist rule in Czechoslovakia but at the heart of this overtly political piece lies the trials and tribulations of a middle class family in the UK. The play opens in 1968 with Esme (Emily Taaffe), a fun-loving 60’s hippy high on cannabis and adamant that Pink Floyd rocker Syd Barrett has just serenaded her on the family garden wall. Next we meet Jan (Graeme Hawley), a young intellectual who Esme is desperate to lose her virginity to before his departure back to Czechoslovakia and Jan is quickly joined by Marxist philosopher Max and his wife Eleanor (Cate Hamer) who is currently coping with the aftermath of breast cancer. The family unit is complete but the story does not stop there. We are then whisked off to Czechoslovakia in the midst of the overthrow of liberal secretary of state Dubcek (who believed in ‘socialism with a human face’) and the emergence of the mighty military machine, which was to violently rule Czechoslovakia, until the eventual downfall of communism in 1989.

The play enters a rapid journey through these 20 terrifying years of communist rule and we meet many more characters along the way, as well as recognising the important part that rock n roll music played throughout these turbulent years. Jan and flat mate Ferdinand (Ken Bradshaw), unwilling to play by the rules of the totalitarian regime, instead immerse themselves in the music and introduce us to non-conformist rock band ‘The plastic people of the Universe’. This band, despite their disinterest in bringing down communism, were so adamant in their refusal to compromise, that they were inadvertently thrown into the political arena and this storyline plays a very important role in this play. Culture and politics at this time were inseparable.

This is undoubtedly a fantastically written play and Tom Stoppard mentions in his notes that he wanted to write a story that would capture the interest of his audience. This intention has generally been done justice by Chris Honer’s intelligent and slick direction. The design by Judith Croft is also strong and the psychedelic and liberating projections of 60’s rock ‘n’ roll contrast strikingly with the grimy and conformist backdrop of Soviet Czechoslovakia.

The ensemble also put in a sterling effort and the performances are engaging throughout. The bloody minded and stubborn Max is played with huge charisma and conviction by Hilton Mcrae. His frustrating yet endearing refusal to believe anything that cannot be proven by reason or logic is measured beautifully by Mcrae. His excellent character development as Max ages into an even bloodier minded pensioner and his very vocal disillusionment with the watered down communism and apathy of the yuppie generation of the 80’s is delightful (‘why aren’t they angry?’). The part of Jan is played with subtlety and empathy by Graeme Hawley and the scene between him and the interrogator (Christopher Wright) is a particular highlight. There is also a charming cameo performance by Leila Crerar as the refreshing Lenka.

My only criticisms of this play would be that emotional outbursts are at times a little unfounded and the over explanation around the subject area made certain conversations seem a little contrived.

However these are small criticisms in what is ultimately a thought provoking and intelligent play. There is also a lot of food for thought for our own 2009 generation, where the angry ‘max’ characters are visibly absent. As the character himself observed in 1989, we live in a ‘democracy of obedience’. Additionally with the cult of the celebrity at an all time high, Jan’s disillusionment in the late 80’s with non-meaningful music (‘Who will be rid, who will be famous’) also rings true.

This is a must-see play for anyone who wants an evening of stimulating theatre.

Photos: Gerry Murray
Rock ‘n’ Roll runs at the Library Theatre until Sat 14th March 09
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