Review: David Tennant and Cush Jumbo in Macbeth, Donmar Warehouse - headphones pros and cons
Review: The Motive and the Cue, Noel Coward Theatre - sharp, funny and delicious to watch

Review: Rock 'n' Roll, Hampstead Theatre - less talk more feeling, please

Nathaniel Parker & Jacob Fortune-Lloyd_Rock 'n' Roll_credit Manuel Harlan
Nathaniel Parker & Jacob Fortune-Lloyd in Rock 'n' Roll, Hampstead Theatre 2023. Photo Manuel Harlan

Cards on the table, I don't always get on with Tom Stoppard's plays. I love Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead but have yet to find another of his plays that resonates or connects with me. Would Rock 'n' Roll at the Hampstead Theatre be different?

This play is set in Cambridge and Czechoslovakia. It covers 20 or so years in the life of Marxist professor Max (Nathaniel Parker), his wife Eleanor (Nancy Carroll), daughter Esme (young Phoebe Horn, older Nancy Carroll) and post-grad student and rock music fan Jan (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd).

At the start of the play, Jan is returning to Czechoslovakia but has a falling out with Max about Communism. The younger is disillusioned with the Soviet version of communism, which involves restrictions and censorship, while the older remains a stalwart of the party.

Jan's obsession with music and his prized record collection become a symbol of freedom and resistance and something for which he gets into trouble when communist controls tighten in Prague.

Meanwhile, Esme is obsessed with Syd Barrett and claims to have seen him once (he lived in Cambridge). Barrett appears in references throughout the play.

Eleanor is a classical literature tutor, which becomes another cultural thread to be debated.

There are some passing romantic relationships, but the love story here is primarily about communism, music, and culture.

Stoppard's plays are deeply intellectual, often involving extended, densely worded debates. My problem is that the specific scientific/political/historical/cultural period in focus is usually unfamiliar, so I don't have any points of reference.

As such, I find myself distanced from the topics under discussion and hankering after the threads of human story.

And Rock 'n' Roll falls into that camp. I know nothing about Czech history, specifically the Prague Spring or Velvet Revolution. I know nothing about archaic Greek poets like Sappho (I Googled afterwards) or Syd Barrett. 

The play felt like a degree-level lecture when I needed GCSE. In fact, I felt like Esme, who never reached the same heady heights of academic study that her parents did because she was too busy being a hippy and getting pregnant.

If you take out the intellectual discussion, you are left with scraps of a human story. But they feel cold in the hands of these characters. I wanted less talk and more feeling.

And that's a particular problem with Max, everything about him is intellectual reasoning.

He's an arrogant intellectual, and Jan is a blinkered idealist, which is how you could boil down their debate. The only thing I felt about either of them was annoyed.

I could appreciate the skill of the acting, writing and the production as a whole, but I took little else away.

Some people love Stoppard, and you might, but his plays aren't for me. Apart from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of course.

So I'm giving Rock 'n' Roll ⭐️⭐️⭐️ mainly because of the quality of the production and acting.

Rock 'n' Roll, Hampstead Theatre

Written by Tom Stoppard

Directed by Nina Raine

Starring Nathaniel Parker,  Nancy Carroll and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd

Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including an interval

Booking until 27 January, visit Hampstead Theatre's website for more details and to buy tickets.

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