Review: ‘Rough Crossing’ at Leeds Grand Theatre

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  • Adam Bruce, United Kingdom Critic

Playwright Tom Stoppard has penned some of the most sparkling comedies and dramatic works throughout his career, including perhaps his most famous works ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ and ‘Arcadia,’ and has also penned the screenplays to ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Parade’s End.’ Now, one of his lesser-known comedies, ‘Rough Crossing,’ is receiving a revival by Bill Kenwright Productions after two major productions in the last thirty years. Currently, on a national tour, I caught the show during its stop at the Leeds Grand Theatre.

‘Rough Crossing’ is set on the SS Italian Castle in the 1930s as it sails to New York, ferrying two playwrights by the names of Turai and Gal (John Partridge and Matthew Cottle respectively) onwards to the premiere of their latest play, which they’re still writing on the voyage. Their composer Adam (Rob Ostlere) is about to pop the question to Natasha (Issy Van Randwyck), the actress playing the lead in the duo’s play. All is not well, however, when the three creatives overhear Natasha having a scandalous conversation with fellow actor Ivor (Simon Dutton), leaving Adam distraught and the two writers faced with the task of smoothing everything out. Throw into the mix hapless waiter Dvornichek (Charlie Stemp) and the stage is set for a tricky time out at sea.

All of this sounds like a solid basis for a short and sweet farce that promises a healthy amount of laughter and a good night out at the theatre. Sadly, it soon becomes apparent that ‘Rough Crossing’ is rather far from such a description. Stoppard has always been acclaimed for his innovative style that combines several genres and self-referential witticisms, so I’m not entirely sure what happened with ‘Rough Crossing.’ Rather than an absurdist, sparkling critique on our existence, it’s a paper-thin comedy dotted with a sparse amount of music and is certainly far removed from Stoppard’s literary canon. After a positive start in its first half, where the committed cast does their best to lay the comedic powder-trail in preparation for the comedic explosions to come, the piece seems to run out of puff and never quite settles or makes up its mind about how long its powder-trail is.

In all honesty, I can’t fault the cast for their dedication to performing such a flat, relatively uninspiring text, whereby its main gag is the unrelenting vigour with which Dvornichek repeatedly drinks Turai’s copious glasses of cognac. The ensemble works well together and, under Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction, carries the hefty burden of the text with endless energy and poise. The few moments where the comedy surfaces are carefully executed and planned, which subsequently awakens several chuckles from an audience that tries its best to make sense of what should have been a relatively straightforward farce.

Housing the action and buttressing the committed performances is one saving grace: Colin Richmond’s set. Smart and beautifully designed, it makes efficient use of the stage space to support the narrative and the characters, while Ben Cracknell’s lighting design complements the art-deco feel with an economical lighting design that helps to generate atmosphere. Of course, the scenography and the comedic performances are once again betrayed by a text that is so focused on stretching out its plot that it renders itself devoid of any ability to harmonically create atmosphere. Even a light-hearted farce that gently provokes us into humorously looking into our own lives should be equipped with the ability to draw on a sense of atmosphere to maximise its potential; take a look at Frayn’s ‘Noises Off’ or Ayckbourn’s ‘Bedroom Farce.’ These respected writers draw upon the atmosphere of where their plays take place, and when you weigh up the amount of successful revivals in comparison to a play like ‘Rough Crossing’, you can easily see how the tried, tested and built-upon formula for farce remains a winner and shouldn’t be illogically tampered with as we see in this production.

This production of ‘Rough Crossing’ could very well been a revival that might have lifted the shadows from its otherwise obscure past, but instead of a well-paced, inventively respectful update, I found myself watching a piece that I can’t quite understand the reasoning behind. This is worth a look to see how a committed cast carries a challengingly written play, but the play itself is probably best left in the past as we acknowledge Stoppard’s more recent, greater artistic works.

‘Rough Crossing’ is at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 6th April and continues on tour. For more information, tickets and a full cast and creative list, please visit: https://www.kenwright.com/portfolio/rough-crossing/