Review: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

By John Nathan, January 22, 2009

Olivier, National Theatre, London SE1

Reports of the death of capitalism are greatly exaggerated, but it is no bad thing to be reminded of just how revolting Communism could be.

If this was artistic director Nicholas Hytner’s intention, he could not have chosen a better work than Tom Stoppard and André Previn’s 1978 one-hour play written for a few actors and a full symphony orchestra.

As the Southbank Sinfonia — a new orchestra populated by conservatoire students — tunes up, the two hospital beds at the front of the stage portend something much more ominous than a concert. They belong to a cell in a psychiatric hospital. Not one of the “special ones” where dissident Alexander (Joseph Millson) went on hunger strike, where the treatment includes being wrapped in wet canvas that squeezes you as it dries until you either pass out or say what the KGB doctors want you to say. No, this is the friendlier version where, as Alexander can attest, not all the patients are sane.

One of them — Toby Jones’s Ivanov, — thinks he plays the triangle in an orchestra. But in an orchestrated society there is no room for rogue percussionists. This is a place where “your opinions are your symptoms”.

Directors Felix Barrett and Tom Morris merge these dissidents’ internal worlds and external realities with seamless elegance. The result is an irresistible blend of Stoppardian wit and physical theatre.

And the scene where the orchestra turns on itself in a brutal ballet of thuggery is a crystal clear analogy of society gone wrong. This is not just Russia then but, under Putin’s watch, Russia now.

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Last updated: 10:12am, January 22 2009