Philip Horton reviews Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing, starring John Partridge and Charlie Stemp, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 2 March

Art deco lovers are in for a real treat at Theatre Royal Bath this week as a two-storey set of a 1930s liner heading across the Atlantic for New York has taken over the stage. And the cast are all dressed to perfection in 1930s garb… but that brings us to the actual play…

Well, Tom Stoppard adapted Rough Crossing from a play by Ferenc Molnar, not that that’s any excuse, as there’s a fairly thin plot. Successful Hungarian playwrights Sandor Turai and Alex Gal arrive on board the liner, SS Italian Castle, sailing from Cherbourg to New York with their latest musical comedy, The Cruise of the Dodo (originally Dido but altered by a secretary’s typo… typical Stoppard word play, of which there is plenty in this play).

They are accompanied by Adam, the composer with a speech impediment apparently brought on by his frightening mother’s return from prison, who’s in love with the glamorous actress, Natasha.

Overhearing English actor Ivor declaring his love for Natasha, and apparently reciprocated by her, Adam is sent even further off the rails.

Playwright Turai rewrites the play overnight using Natasha and Ivor’s words, meanwhile Adam throws himself overboard. After he’s rescued the play is rehearsed on board thus convincing him, incorrectly, that what he overheard was merely part of the play.

A running joke or two are provided by cabin steward Dvornichek (the excellent Charlie Stemp), while Turai, played by John Partridge (EastEnders, Celebrity Masterchef winner) carries most of the play particularly well.

I suppose the real question here is whether the play stands up to scrutiny. First performed in 1984, one isn’t quite sure what Tom Stoppard was aiming at. Is this just a pastiche of the 1930s or was trying to make it a spoof of that sort of play?

It did eventually debut in New York, 1994, and has occasionally been revived over here but with little positive success.

A Q&A afterwards with the director or cast might have been interesting. It’s performed with great enthusiasm and no little skill, but with so many plays available what was it about this one that attracted them?

That said, the first night in Bath played to quite a full audience who found plenty of laughs and some excellent performances. Tom Stoppard can sometimes be an acquired taste; he’s certainly prolific and internationally acclaimed with many brilliant works to his name.

So give it a go. Pop along and see what you make of this rarely seen play and make your own mind up.

Main image: Rob Ostlere as Adam, John Partridge as Turai and Charlie Stemp as Dvornichek in Rough Crossing. Credit: Pamela Raith Photography