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The Theatreguide.London Review

Rock 'N' Roll
Hampstead Theatre     Winter 2023-2024

Tom Stoppardís play Rock 'n' Roll, first performed at The Royal Court Theatre in 2006, is given a well-performed, spirited revival directed by Nina Raine at Hampstead Theatre.

Lasting a good three hours on a minimal traverse set, its plot takes us from 1968 to 1990, switching back and forth between Cambridge England and Czechoslovakia.

It opens with Max, a lecturer in philosophy and a member of the Communist Party, discussing with a visiting Czechoslovakian PhD student Jan, their different notions of social change.

Jan (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) is convinced that the reformist Prague Spring was a time of liberation and that a Russian invasion wonít change that. Max (Nathaniel Parker) feels those developments turn their back on real socialist development.

However, Jan returns to his home country to find censorship and oppression reign under the puppet regime of the Russians. His lack of power is illustrated in a scene where he is questioned about the supposedly dangerous music heís brought with him, and forced to eat a biscuit he doesnít want.

Soon he is pulled by the music of the Czechoslovakian band The Plastic People of the Universe, who become a symbol of those wanting liberation.

(Their Velvet Underground influenced 1974 album Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned is worth a listen on YouTube)

It leads to Jan being imprisoned for a period and having his record collection smashed by the authorities.

Ten years on, Jan is working in a bakery and very carefully becomes one of the country's dissidents. Meanwhile, Max has resigned from the Communist Party. Speaking of Eurocommunist dominance of the British organisation, he says itís like someone calling themselves a vegetarian and then eating lamb chops.

A sense of defeat and disillusion hounds a good deal of their life with Max later becoming physically less able to move around.

A fragment of a song from the youth culture of the time such as the Stones and the Velvet Underground is played between each scene.

Several times the music of Syd Barrett is heard and occasionally an actor playing the one-time member of Pink Floyd will appear. Syd opens the show and comes to symbolise a romantic feeling of hope and yearning for something different. 

Alice (Phoebe Horn), Max's grandchild, gets to know Syd in person and at a dinner party is enraged with the tabloid journalist Candida (Emily Mytton) about an article that refers to Syd.

Her mother Esme (Nancy Carroll) is also enchanted by Syd and recalls when, as a much younger self, she saw him on a garden wall playing a whistle.

Although a sense of loss and defeat dominates the show, this is lightened by romantic connections Max and Jan find with women characters who give the final scene an uplifting if unexpected finish.

The play, which is derived from Tom Stoppard's background, skims the surface of a debate about a particular period in history. Dialogue and debate driven, it doesnít carry much dramatic tension but there are many interesting moments and a sprinkling of Stoppard witticisms. 

Keith McKenna

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Review of Rock And Roll  -  Hampstead Theatre 2023

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