I already knew a bit about Dr (Dictionary) Johnson as my dad’s work was exhibited last year in his preserved London home now a museum, but I had no idea of the cult following his work engenders. When I went along to the Arts Theatre this week I was amazed by the enthusiasm of the audience, who all seemed very familiar with this genius’ work and words. The new play, A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson, plays on his witty remarks and many memorable quotes.
Only ninety minutes long it is adapted by Russell Barr, Ian Redford and Max Stafford-Clark from Boswell's ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson’ and ‘The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides’. We are introduced to Dr Johnson and invited to look in on his life. A sparse little living room is set up on stage with only a table and two chairs, an intimate setting for this cabinet work.
The play is performed more as a recitation than a performance. With very few props, it is a compilation of Johnson moments and is very wordy; at times I craved a little more action. The acting is beautiful throughout, with a particularly stunning rendition of Johnson by Ian Redford, delivering the lines with great aplomb and possessing a manic energy that feels appropriate for this fascinating character.
Due to illness, Russell Barr has had to pull out but a very competent Luke Griffin joins the cast, taking on the role of James Boswell and a staggering seven other parts. The poor man barely had a prop to define each character and instead had to work hard to distinguish with contrasting accents and mannerisms. The volume of lines meant at times, he was partly reading the words from his black book, a little distracting, but totally understandable in the circumstances. Trudie Styler has a cameo part towards the end of the show as Johnson’s greatest love, Mrs Hester Thrale, adding another dimension to the play, interacting well with the pair of men, making the final moments more dynamic.
A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson is a well structured memoir of a great man of literature, giving an insight into his unique legacy.
Continues until 24 September, book here.