The play's not quite the thing

<i>Rough Crossing</i> | Palace, Watford
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Bad idea as it is to compete with PG Wodehouse - look what a balls Stephen Fry makes of it - English comic writers, understandably, can't stop trying. In the case of Rough Crossing (1984), the writers seem more evenly matched. Tom Stoppard has, like Wodehouse, the linguistic meticulousness and audacity of the clever outsider. He is also working with the same material - Ferenc Molnar's At the Castle, translated by Wodehouse in 1926 under the apter and more attractive title The Play's the Thing. In theatrical brilliance, Stoppard has the edge, but brilliance can sometimes over-egg the pudding. What Wodehouse gave the play, and Stoppard doesn't, is lightness and sweetness, an ambience not just glamorous but cosy.

Bad idea as it is to compete with PG Wodehouse - look what a balls Stephen Fry makes of it - English comic writers, understandably, can't stop trying. In the case of Rough Crossing (1984), the writers seem more evenly matched. Tom Stoppard has, like Wodehouse, the linguistic meticulousness and audacity of the clever outsider. He is also working with the same material - Ferenc Molnar's At the Castle, translated by Wodehouse in 1926 under the apter and more attractive title The Play's the Thing. In theatrical brilliance, Stoppard has the edge, but brilliance can sometimes over-egg the pudding. What Wodehouse gave the play, and Stoppard doesn't, is lightness and sweetness, an ambience not just glamorous but cosy.

There is much to savour in Molnar's reduction of farce to almost metaphysical absurdity. Natasha, star of a musical, is sailing to New York with its co-authors, composer and leading man, Ivor Fish. Not realising that the others are already on board (just a few feet away), Natasha and Ivor play a steamy love scene on her balcony. This seems to put paid not only to the play's future but Natasha's - the composer, Adam Adam, is her fiancé, and wants to walk away from both. Playwright Sandor tries to convince Adam that the lovebirds were rehearsing a scene; now all he has to do is invent a context. Unlike his other works, such as Lottie from Brest-Litovsk, "the first play to close after a matinée", this had better be good.

Much of it, as it turns out, is divine. "Why do you say that?" asks Natasha when Ivor reads a line referring to "Reggie Robinsod". "Because that's the way it's typed," he says. "I was starved of affectation as a child," he laments. "Is that another typing error?" The jokes arise not only from the situation but from the eagerness of romancers to believe anything, the willingness of actors to pretend anything, and the hatred of playwrights for actors, and actors for one another.

But, while the dialogue sparkles, Joanna Read's production does everything to scuttle the ship. I had thought, seeing Anita Dobson's Natasha a few years ago, that one couldn't miscast that part any worse. I was wrong. As Sandor, Matthew Kelly demonstrates benevolence and suavity with hands on hips and rolling eyes, while John Ramm ruins the ostensibly foolproof part of the pushy waiter with look-at-me grimaces and an accent never heard on land or sea. The simultaneous revival of this and The Guardsman raised hopes for a Molnar revival. Sadly this only reminds one that, in the title of another pushy-waiter comedy, you never can tell.

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