REVIEW: Arcadia at the Georgian Theatre Royal

Science, sex, hermits, poetry, chaos, rice pudding and finally a tortoise. What more could you possibly wish for on a night out in Richmond?

Just weeks before it was due to go on stage the Covid pandemic halted this production in the spring of 2020 of arguably Tom Stoppard’s finest work, Arcadia – a drama which is about pretty much everything, including the age-old battle between romanticism and classicism. Coronation Street this is emphatically not.

First, the play, then the players.

Stoppard’s 1993 work received a rapturous response nearly three decades ago and is rightly regarded as one of his masterpieces.

Well done to Richmond Amateur Dramatics Society (RADS) for taking it on as it’s a play long on theory and not for the faint-hearted. You need to concentrate hard at Richmond’s Georgian Theatre Royal because Stoppard’s every word has meaning and value.

The action spills between a stately home in Derbyshire in 1809 and the present day. Well, at least the early 90s.

As the drama unfolds ‘Arcadia’ explores the ground between evidence and truth, fact and fiction, using a variety of scientific theories. Above all, it is a tragi-comedy and there are some terrifically funny lines, but this laughter all revolves around the dichotomy of chaos versus order. As I told you, it’s not exactly a ‘he’s behind yooooo’ Christmas panto.

Brainbox Valentine Coverly (Daniel West) asserts that order can be found everywhere. “In an ocean of ashes, islands of order. Patterns making themselves out of nothing.”

It’s important not to be put off by this high-brow stuff as it is a very accessible play.  That’s because although the central themes are PhD-level academic discourses on everything from thermodynamics to Newtonian mathematics, there is plenty of dialogue which centres around modern human emotions, reactions and actions.

Take for example slippery academic Bernard Nightingale (Chris Wellings) who sees the main chance to make a name for himself and bugger off anyone who gets in his way. Tutor Septimus Hodge (Jasper Worrallo) initially comes across as a straight shooter, only for us to discover he has bedded the older women of the stately house and then turns his attention to his teenage student Thomasina Coverly (Katrianna Torbet). Again, Hodge is a likeable rogue, but one who is connected to the modern day.

Hannah Jarvis (Fiona Dutton) rejects the various sexual advances made to her – yes, of course Nightingale was one of those. While Chloe Coverly (Martha Templeton) tries to set up Hannah with the lecherous Nightingale, only to end up sleeping with him herself. It’s a modern take on Jane Austen’s Emma.

The players were outstanding. At around two and a half hours long Arcadia is a tough nut to crack and RADS did a sterling job of it. Expertly directed by Kathryn Torbet, the acting was precise and dramatic. OK, so the best lines were gifted by Stoppard to Lady Croom (Jennifer Roberts) and Nightingale, but at all times RADS kept up a lively pace.

With byzantine theories here there and everywhere it would be fairly understandable if an audience occasionally lost the thread, but at no time did this happen, underlining the strength of the players and direction.

There are few plays which delve into the world of the heat death of the universe, with evidence supported by the cooling of a dish of rice pudding, but then Stoppard has always been something of a maverick. His most famous works remain Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and the Coast of Utopia while the octogenarian who fled Nazi persecution just days before the start of the Second World War, has co-written Oscar-winning screenplays such as Shakespeare in Love and Brazil.

With Arcadia he showed how versatile and complex he could be, while retaining the element of humour which enriches his works.

RADS certainly did our greatest living playwright proud with a performance of precision and some degree of panache.

Limited tickets remain on sale for Arcadia on Friday and Saturday evening.

Click here for more details.