Frank McGuinness’ play Dinner with Groucho, is a circuitous narrative about two twentieth-century cultural icons, TS Eliot and Groucho Marx. Although much has been written about Eliot, one of the world’s major poets, and about the anarchic, quick-witted comedy of Groucho Marx, little is known of their inner mysteries, sufferings and delights.
McGuinness, in choosing caricature rather than a literary portrait to anoint his characters, joins the legions of writers who’ve travelled the same safe road before him, littered with references from a semi-centennial past.
The play is set in a small, old-world restaurant with a bistro-size table laid for two. Its familiar design immediately signals a memory-laden flashback of days gone by (Design Adam Wiltshire). Two wine glasses stand in wait, illuminated by large glass baubles suspended overhead (Lighting Design Paul Keogan). Like shape-shifters, these baubles convey many things: starry skies, Christmas lights, champagne bubbles, and gatherings of birds in flight.
A proprietor enters, (Ingrid Craigie) dressed in garb reminiscent of a murderous landlady in 1950s film noir (Costume Design Joan Bergin). She encounters the bistro table like a chance meeting with an old friend, first caressing – then clawing – its white cloth covering, as if pulling memory from worn thread. Slowly, she trails her finger ’round the edge of each wine glass. Rise, rise! she shouts, in a voice powered by shrieks of thunder and lightning (Composer, Sound Design Conor Linehan). It is an effective nod to the witches in the opening scenes of Macbeth.
As the sorceress/proprietor rushes off stage, TS Eliot (Greg Hicks) and Groucho Marx (Ian Bartholomew) rush in to take their places at the bistro-like table. Right from the get-go, the ill-fitting characterisations and bad jokes begin.
If you’re a lover of old Marx Brothers’ films, then you’ll delight in Groucho’s exaggerated stoop posture, cigar and greasepaint eyebrows, as well as references to Duck Soup, one of their most popular films. You may also relish cringe-worthy imitations of Hollywood glamour stars, along with the antics of cartoon character Felix the Cat. If not, you’ll wonder what the audience is laughing about and, yes, it did laugh – and loudly
Okay, these are references Eliot and Marx grew up with, but the trouble is the jokes and the mimicry aren’t bad enough. If they were horrifyingly rude and distasteful, then the play might have a chance, but halfway awful material left me eyeing the exit sign ten minutes into this flailing comedy. All the actors work hard, too hard, with material that courts impersonation, rather than an embodiment of Eliot and Marx.
This is less true of the Proprietor who is faithful to the character of a restauranteur, one fiercely proud of her bistro, even when guests are wrongly handed a monstrous bill for food neither served nor in stock. Just when you’re feeling her strength, she’s let down by having to mouth words reeking of the playwright’s philosophy of life, none of which suits her character.
However, Dinner with Groucho does have its moments of high-kicking, rollicking fun in the delightful dance routines (Choreographer David Bolger) that spring to life upon the utterance of the bubbly word ‘champagne’.
If only TS Eliot, Groucho Marx and the Proprietor could’ve danced all night.
Review by Loretta Monaco
Two men, together, on the edge of heaven. In a strange restaurant, two American giants who revere each other, Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot, meet for dinner. Both in their own ways great defiant spirits, they create magic and anarchy, revealing secrets and sorrows. The evening is presided over by the Proprietor, who seems to control the workings of the universe. Or does she? In Dinner With Groucho, all is revealed. Or nearly so.
The world premiere of Dinner With Groucho
By Frank McGuinness
Ian Bartholomew as Groucho Marx
Ingrid Craigie as Proprietor
Greg Hicks as T.S. Eliot
ARCOLA THEATRE, STUDIO 1
17 November – 10 December 2022