I have an inherent discomfort with theatre that requires a certain knowledge or level of intelligence in order to appreciate it (reference my ongoing debate with the current Royal Court policy). It's innately smug and feels dismissive of opinion or question from those 'not in the know' which, in my mind, succeeds only in making theatre itself seem unnecessarily (more) exclusive.

The 'fourth wall' isn't just broken here, it's bulldozed, crashed down and then constantly rebuilt in a different guise

So what to expect from Stoppard's 1974 play Travesties - a polemic on the importance of language, politics and art that plays out in imagined scenes involving Lenin, James Joyce and Dada founder, Tristan Tzara? Surprisingly, due to Patrick Marber's lightning pace direction and the cast's delivery that dances with musicality, you get an unusual, energetic and very funny masterclass display of verbal dexterity that is (on the whole) more vibrant than verbose.

Much - but not all - of this is down to Tom Hollander's firework of a performance as protagonist Henry Carr, regaling us with confused memories of his time as British Consulate in Zurich circa 1917. Hollander punctuates every syllable he speaks, delivers every laugh on point and changes pace with the slightest pause - demonstrating both addled confusion as an elderly man today ("I can be contradicted on all points except my height") and a desperate need for attention as his younger self. As he takes us back and forth, repeats, rewinds and replays his memories, the often confusing, far from linear, plot is steered with a control that is as powerful in a silent beat as it is in a fantastical monologue.

The 'fourth wall' isn't just broken here, it's bulldozed, crashed down and then constantly rebuilt in a different guise. Carr's reinventing of history is not simply a 'play within a play', but a musical / burlesque / naturalistic / kafkaesque / dreamlike cornucopia of styles. The set is covered with pages of script, sleeveless books and shelves that hint at being filled with works of genius - visually echoing the importance held by every word around us, changing dramatically in meaning as context or delivery shift. Once or twice a word was dropped in this performance but stood out more for having been, as though a precious jewel had just been smashed - such is the strength and understanding that each actor generally brings to their script.

From Clare Foster and Amy Morgan as objects of affection Cecile and Gwendolen going through a gamut of emotion in what (without truly listening) sounds like a delightful Gilbert & Sullivan tune (G&S are referenced often as the true masters of British theatre by the young, naive and shallow Carr) - to Freddie Fox's gorgeously extravagant, camp and flamboyant Tzara (perhaps with more over gesticulation than truly necessary but the sex he oozes onstage helps you forgive him), words become acrobats that jump from the mouths of their masters and sing (both metaphorically and literally) before you.

The play elevates Carr's role in developing Joyce's talent (the former playing in the latter's production of The Importance of Being Earnest - "not as Earnest but...the other one") whilst Joyce was writing Ulysses (working title 'Elasticated Bloomers') as well as his attempt to thwart Lenin's return to Russia and his challenges - and therefore steering - of the birth of Dadaism (ergo his input into the creation of surrealism). But it's really not imperative to know the reality or to try and understand the references being pulled on. What Marber does here is demonstrate Stoppard's general musings over the value, worth and definition of art by playing with those very notions in its styling rather than its story.

Depending how you approach the play - and what knowledge you bring with you - will impact whether you will see this as being shallow or deep; neither being better than the other as it's truly both. The real games here are with the words - at times, there are more games and puzzles to quite keep up with but you really don't need to bother. My advice would be to not over-examine or over-intellectualise as you will then miss something coming right around the corner that's worth your attention more - a childish running joke on Joyce's surname ("is it Phyllis? Rita? Or James Deirdre?")...or Lenin wearing what looks like a lady's wig whilst continuing to stage whisper "I'm wearing a wig"...or a question as to whether the phrase 'social revolution' is referring to "unaccompanied women smoking at the opera". The contrast of silliness, politics and aesthete shouldn't work - but create a much better whole for being the parts.

It's as though Stoppard was cheekily stealing reviewers' potential headlines (or possibly helping them if they were struggling) when he gave the line to Tzara that "It may be nonsense but at least it's clever nonsense." It may be his definition of Dada but one wonders if this line became the hook by which the rest of the play revolved - and that hung up in the rehearsal room. For this is an experience that cries out for the oxymoronic definition - 'lowbrow literati', 'deeply shallow', 'frenetically controlled'. None of which are as truly fitting as the line Stoppard himself wrote.

In all honesty, I do wonder if this may struggle to find a long term home in the West End - the synopsis on paper doesn't do it real justice, the tourists may be bewildered by such mastery of the language and our human need to understand leads us to focus on what we don't 'get' as opposed to what we do. But that would be a shame. Whilst you do need to sit up and take notice of each word being teased on stage, allow yourself to go on the whole journey and ignore the slight bumps on the road that you may experience. This is acting at its finest, delivering comedy that just makes you laugh out loud. And it's unexpected to be able to say that after spending a night in wartime Zurich.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez


Viola's Room

Garrick Theatre

Regards to Broadway

Trafalgar Theatre

People, Places & Things

Lyttelton Theatre

London Tide

Dorfman Theatre

Underdog: The Other Other Brontë

Gillian Lynne Theatre

Standing at the Sky's Edge


Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this review has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now



The Blurb

The Menier Chocolate Factory's current revival of Tom Stoppard's Travesties will transfer to the West End's Apollo Theatre, beginning performances on 3 February 2017. The revival stars Tom Hollander as Henry Carr alongside Amy Morgan as Gwendolen, Freddie Fox as Tristan Tzara, Clare Foster and Forbes Masson.

Tom Stoppard’s dazzling comedy of art, love and revolution features James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Lenin as remembered - and misremembered - by Henry Carr, a minor British diplomat in Zurich 1917. When Gwendolen and Cecily wander in from The Importance of Being Earnest Henry’s mind wanders too. He knows he was Algernon in a production in Zurich. But who was the other one? The original production of Travesties won the Evening Standard award for Best Comedy and the Tony award for Best Play. This first London revival in over 20 years will be directed by Patrick Marber and will star Tom Hollander. 

Most Popular See More

Matilda the Musical

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets


From £39.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Moulin Rouge! The Musical

From £30.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Phantom of the Opera

From £30.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Book of Mormon

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Tina - The Tina Turner Musical

From £12.00

More Info

Find Tickets