Every Good Boy Deserves Favour @ Olivier, National Theatre, London

cast list
Bronagh Gallagher
Bryony Hannah
Toby Jones
Joseph Millson
Dan Stevens
Alan Williams

directed by
Felix Barrett and Tom Morris
Tom Stoppard and Andr Previn’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour has hardly been seen since its initial production in 1977. It’s not surprising; a play that demands a full orchestra doesn’t come cheap or easy and lies outside the scope of most companies lacking the resources of a National Theatre.

The play grew from a comment by the conductor/composer to the playwright that, if he ever wanted to write a piece incorporating an orchestra, he could provide one. It must have been the throwing down of a tempting gauntlet.

Stoppard worked through a number of possible scenarios before meeting the Russian dissident Victor Fainberg, whose story of imprisonment by the Soviet authorities set him on the path.
The 65 minute play he came up with sets a dissenter, imprisoned for criticising the establishment’s tendency to bang up political agitators in insane asylums, against a real inmate who believes he has an orchestra in his head.

The orchestra is a potent image for an exploration of the clash of the individual and a conformist society. Not to denigrate musicians who work within an ensemble rather than as soloists, there’s always something of a mystery about why talented individuals choose to become anonymous members of a collective. Stoppard seizes on the possibilities this offers.

In the National Theatre’s new production, Joseph Millson, as the dissident Alexander, and Toby Jones, as the triangle-obsessed Ivanov, give accomplished and genuinely moving performances. Strong support is provided by Bronagh Gallagher as a slightly ambiguous teacher, Bryony Hannah as her bewildered ward Sasha and Dan Stevens as a dangerously dithering doctor. Alan Williams has a telling cameo as the Colonel, responsible, as a representative of the ruling regime, for incarcerating the protagonists, while releasing them through a personal quirk.

The Southbank Sinfonia fields a sizeable band, but not as large as it first seems, with actors and dancers peeling away to take part in a dazzling and violent ballet. The production by Punchdrunk‘s Felix Barrett and Tom Morris is stylish and full of grace, with striking lighting by Bruno Poet within the simplest of environments by Bob Crowley.

Whether or not you feel Stoppard’s trademark word-play is entirely appropriate to the subject matter, he dishes up, as always, a dazzling display of elegantly manipulated language. Toby Jones’ character in particular seems to have swallowed the Punner’s Directory and laughter is carefully balanced with pathos.

Previn’s score, played with gusto by the Sinfonia under the baton of Simon Over, is attractive with strong shades of Shostakovich, an obvious but apt reference.

In a programme note, Stoppard insists that “the bad old days” were not confined to the era of the play’s birth but that, with some 50 journalists assassinated in Russia since 1992, they are still with us. It seems hardly necessary, not just because it looks like an attempt to shoehorn contemporary relevance into a 30 year old play, but because it’s only too clear that human abuses are a part of the armoury of most societies today, not just the former Soviet Union.

With even the USA finally admitting to the torture of its political enemies, this is a timely revival of a politically acute and quirkily engaging work.

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