The Theatreguide.London Review
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour
Olivier Theatre January-February 2009, January-February 2010
This 1977 collaboration between playwright Tom Stoppard and composer Andre Previn is amiably entertaining, with just enough bite to make it stick in the memory.
Inspired by accounts of Soviet political dissidents being buried in psychiatric hospitals to make them non-persons, Stoppard imagines such a dissident whom a whimsical commissar has put in the same cell as another patient with the exact same name, a mad musician who is plagued by the sound of an imaginary orchestra.
This allows for an actual symphony orchestra onstage, playing not only the madman's auditory hallucinations but between-scene interludes and mood-heightening 'movie music,' all original compositions by Andre Previn.
Stoppard's satire of the Soviet repression centres on the Catch 22 built into it - embarrassed by the practice, the authorities would happily free the dissident, but only if he admits that he was mad and that they cured him.
But there is plenty other Stoppardian wit throughout, ranging from puns and wordplay - reference to a plucky harpist, and the like - to simple jokes (Doctor about patient: 'He has an identity problem. I forget his name.'), and a final plot twist that is itself an exposure of Soviet hypocracy.
In between there is a lot of undisguised direct criticism, from the dissident's account of how repression inevitably snowballs to include everyone who supported or even just knew the first to be arrested, to the explanation that a hunger strike releases bodily chemicals that resemble nail polish remover, so that 'A girl removing her nail varnish smells like starvation.'
My weak memory of the original production is that Ian McDiarmid stressed the musician's manic energy while John Carlisle was more subdued as the dissident. Here, under the direction of Felix Barrett and Tom Morris,Toby Jones makes the madman a sadder figure, truly haunted by the music he can't escape, while Joseph Millson dominates with the dissident's righteous anger.
One particularly effective innovation by the current directors is to plant several dancers within the onstage Southbank Sinfonia, so that a couple of the extended orchestral interludes become choreographed images of repression or suffering. As well as being moving in themselves - choreography by Maxine Doyle - they help unite the dramatic and musical elements, which sometimes threaten to go their separate ways.
As it seemed thirty years ago, the weakest link is Andre Previn's music, a mix of Romantic themes that too often sinks to the level of ignorable 'movie music'.
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour runs just over an hour, and is being performed twice nightly.
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