Dinner With Groucho at Arcola Theatre review: completely baffling

From left, Ian Bartholomew, Ingrid Craigie and Greg Hicks in Dinner with Groucho  ( Ros Kavanagh)
From left, Ian Bartholomew, Ingrid Craigie and Greg Hicks in Dinner with Groucho ( Ros Kavanagh)

Irish playwright Frank McGuinness has spun the unlikely, late-life friendship between poet TS Eliot and comedian Groucho Marx into an opaque fantasy where the two witter allusively about everything and nothing in a restaurant with no food.

Greg Hicks and Ian Bartholomew (Geoff Metcalfe in Corrie) struggle through the inert dialogue, and Loveday Ingram’s 70-minute production somehow feels much longer. To quote the great Groucho himself: I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.

Eliot, the austere priest of modernist verse and sometime antisemite, corresponded with Groucho, the Jewish lord of misrule in vaudeville, cinema and TV, in the early 1960s and they met at Eliot’s house in London the year before he died in 1965. McGuinness imagines them as ghosts, or composites of the forces that drove their work: Groucho’s manic improvisation; the way Eliot metabolised the literary canon into something new.

They go into absurdist, competitive routines that take in music hall star Marie Lloyd, Bugs Bunny cartoons, Dante and occupied states in postwar Europe. The funniest is a riff on King Lear that gives Shakespeare’s monarch a Jewish mother in Brooklyn who refers to him as “Bernie”.

 (Ros Kavanagh)
(Ros Kavanagh)

Hicks’s Eliot is a dry, dying old stick in immaculate grey tweed who performs magic tricks and regards himself as a charlatan. Bartholomew, though sporting Groucho’s trademark cartoon moustache, eyebrows and cigar, lightly sketches his mannerisms and iconoclastic chippiness. Ingrid Craigie as the restaurant proprietor drifts in and out, bearing empty bottles and yet more darkly incomprehensible utterances. She gets the wittiest joke, however, about a man from Alsace-Lorraine “who ended up in a quiche. Or possibly an Alsatian.”

The play’s seaside setting may allude to Margate, where Eliot wrote his masterpiece The Waste Land, which is quoted here. But it also recalls the Walrus and the Carpenter interlude in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and the bleak lack of action in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The characters quote from poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins and Marianne Moore, but I only know that because I Googled it when I got home. And I’d never heard of Moore before.

I detest clever-dick plays that make the audience struggle hard to find meaning but allows them the warm glow of self-congratulation for getting an obscure reference. I studied Eliot in A-level English and devoured the Marx Brothers films at what was then the National Film Theatre in the 1980s. Is The Waste Land on the curriculum now, in its centenary year? And who under 50 knows about Groucho and his siblings and will therefore get McGuinness’s oblique references to old routines and one-liners? Writers can write what they want, of course, but it’s odd to pitch a play exclusively to an ageing demographic.

Dinner With Groucho is staged with technical skill by Ingram and her actors, and Adam Wiltshire’s set is pleasing, especially the backdrop of roiling clouds and sea by Michael Cummins. But there’s no life animating its dialogue and ultimately I don’t have a clue what it’s about.

Arcola Theatre, to Nov 9; arcolatheatre.com