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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Roman Bath
Arcola Theatre        Spring 2010

Offered as part of a Bulgarian season at the Arcola, Stanislav Stratlev's 1974 comedy is a satire on bureaucracy - do Eastern Europeans write any other sort of satire? - and a knockabout farce, that is more successful as the first than the second.

Ivan returns from a rare holiday to be told that workmen have discovered a perfectly preserved Roman bath under his floorboards.

In rapid order his home is invaded by a TV crew, an ambitious archaeologist, the diggerís neglected girlfriend, an art smuggler, a sexy estate agent, the local Party boss, a lifeguard (because the rule is that all public baths must have a lifeguard, even if theyíre ancient artefacts with no water in them), a passing deaf-mute (for no particular reason) and an intercom with attitude.

So the opportunities for satire are obviously there, most effectively in the slightly monstrous capitalist hustlers and Party guy, and in the just-doing-my-job lifeguard.

The other characters, at least as presented in this adaptation by Justin Butcher directed by Russell Bolam, just arenít larger-than-life enough to be satirically effective.

That suggests that director Bolam isnít fully attuned to the needs of the genre, just as the playís limited success as farce also seems to be his fault.

He hasnít grasped the fact that speed is of the essence in farce, and that if we get a moment to think - even worse, if poor Ivan gets a moment to catch his breath - the whole thing is in danger of collapsing or looking plain silly.

And the production is far too leisurely. Even when one character is chasing another around with an axe while a woman performs a strip tease and the lifeguard is looking for someone to save, youíre more aware of the quiet moments than of the hubbub.

If everything had more of a snap to it and a relentless forward impetus, and if the quieter characters, like the archaeologist, were played at the cartoon level of some of the others, this could be a laugh-a-minute romp.

As it is, itís more like a chuckle every few minutes, with a lot of dead space in between.

As Ivan, Ifan Meredith has some of the charm and all-elbows comic awkwardness of a young Jim Dale, with hints that he could play a funnier panicked exasperation if directed that way.

Lloyd Woolf rightly plays the lifeguard utterly straight, letting the absurdity of the situation generate his laughs for him, but Bo Poraj as the archaeologist has been left stranded by his director with nothing funny to add to the proceedings.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Roman Bath - Arcola  Theatre 2010


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