A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson, Dr Johnson's House, London

Reviewed,Paul Taylor
Thursday 10 March 2011 01:00 GMT

For this particular stop on its nation-wide tour, A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson – an evening of pure, civilised delight, directed by Max Stafford-Clark for his Out of Joint Company – becomes seriously site-specific. The audience is seated up in the attic of the beautiful Georgian house in Gough Square (off Fleet Street) where the great man of letters lived while compiling his monumental Dictionary.

With his craggy moon face and Staffordshire accent, Ian Redford brings him to life here in a superb performance that captures the tension between humorously dogmatic intellectual confidence and the handwringing anxiety of the clinical depressive whose spirit was preyed on by a morbid horror of annihilation. "I depend on company," he declares, as he welcomes us.

This is not, though, one of those irritatingly lavender-scented evenings of mere literary anecdotage. Johnson's mighty spirit and vast hinterland are conjured up in swift revealing touches, such as the comic delicacy with which he insists that he himself feeds his beloved cat Hodge himself rather than ask his servants to do it.

Russell Barr (who compiled the 80-minute show with Redford and Stafford-Clark) plays, with a winning wit, a medley of Johnson's friends – from his fellow-depressive, bosom companion, whipping boy and biographer-in-waiting, James Boswell to his blind Welsh housekeeper, Mrs Williams who, when she handed me a cup of tea, stuck a finger in it to check the level.

Perhaps to indicate the special romantic intensity of his feelings for her, a real woman, Trudie Styler, floating in an atmosphere of kindly but noli me tangere graciousness, portrays Mrs Thrale, the wife of a wealthy brewer who was Johnson's final, unrequited love. One did not want the evening to end.

To 11 March (020 7353 3745); then touring to 9 April (www.drjohnsonshouse.org)

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