Review – Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, National Theatre

Sunday 18 January 2009


A Accurately Advertised running time for once. 65 minutes long.

B Brevity. The Whingers approve.

C Coughing. Had the National imported the audience from Oliver! wholesale?

D Don’t people bother with cough sweets theses days?

E Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is a play for actors and orchestra (Southbank Sinfonia) by Tom Stoppard and André Previn. It’s a rarely performed curiosity. An extravagance. But is it worth the effort?

F Feet. Andrew does not like them at all and did not enjoy sitting so near to Joseph Millson’s large bare feet and for your sake hopes that the costume department can come up with some shoes for him.

G Good performances. Dan Stevens is very funny as the doctor.

H Herrmann (Bernard) – a name that both Whingers scribbled in their notebooks when listening to Previn’s tunes. If only it had been the work of the wonderful film music composer; at times it nearly was. The Whingers had brought along some classically informed companions (Mark and Roy) who insisted that the score was actually a pastiche of Russian composers such as Tchaikovksy and Mussorgsky.

I Ivanov is the name of two of the characters. That’s three we’ve seen on the stage in a matter of months. What are the chances?

J Jimmy Krankie. The Whingers were reminded of that iconic star by the bizarre casting of Bryony Hannah as Sacha Alexander’s son. A late entry (or an absurdly early one) for the panto season. Curiously “playing a boy” is not listed as one of her special skills which are actually Stage Combat – Distinction (BASSC); Alto saxophone (Grade 8); Full driving licence.

K Klunk. A person taking their seat behind the Whingers managed to hit them and their party all on the backs of their heads with their bag as they barged through. No apology. What ever happened to manners? Now no one even says “oops” when they’re passing their gas.

L Lighting Designer goes under the wonderful name of Bruno Poet. Did a good job.

M Mnemonic. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is used by music students to remember the notes on the lines of the treble clef.

N Nemonic. How mnemonic should be pronounced, apparently.

O Only the National could afford to stage something on this scale.

P Plot. Dissident, Alexander Ivanov (Joseph Millson, bottom, superb) won’t be released from is a Soviet mental hospital unless he admits that his statements against the government were the result of a (non-existent) mental disorder and that he is cured. He is sharing a cell with a genuine schizophrenic, also called Ivanov (Toby Jones, top, also superb), who believes he has a symphony orchestra.

Q Queen’s Silver Jubilee, as part of which celebrations EGBDF premiered in 1977 at the Royal Festival Hall with a cast that included Ian McKellen , John Wood and Patrick Stewart and the London Symphony Orchestra playing the tunes under Previn’s baton.

R Rare event (see below).

S Schism. (Or as Harry Hill would say FIGHT!!!) Andrew thought it all rather wonderful, Phil wasn’t nearly as convinced and thinks Andrew was seduced by its running time.

T Triangle. A first for the Whingers. How often do you see this undervalued instrument feature so significantly on stage?

U Ultimately unsatisfying. Phil thought the orchestra got in the way of the play and the play in the way of the orchestra. A curious experiment that now feels strangely dated.

U Utterly absorbing. To Andrew – who is too young to remember theatre in 1977 – it all seemed rather dashing and clever and audacious and he was captivated from beginning to end.

V Vladimir Bukovsky there’s an interview with him in the programme and the play is dedicated to him and another former Soviet political dissident Victor Fainberg.

W Witty word play in the early scenes. So this is the famous Stoppardian wit people bang on about. Though Phil thought some of it to be not as clever as he thinks Stoppard thinks it is. “Apparently coughing the diminuendos” drew resonance from this consumptive audience but when one character says “He’s a good boy he deserves a father” Phil groaned.

X X-rated. A friend of a friend the Whingers ran into after the play had some very potty-mouthed things to say about EGBDF, Carousel and Lesley Garrett, none of which will be repeated on these pages. But for the price of a drink…

Y “You do realise you’re not seeing all the set? (designer Bob Crowley) It hasn’t all arrived yet.” Phil overheard this conversation in the loo just before it began – but what did it mean?

Zzzzzzs, lack of. Andrew stayed awake, which is a recommendation of sorts.


18 Responses to “Review – Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, National Theatre”

  1. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Ivanov is the name of three of the characters. The triangle player designated “Ivanov” in the script and programme, the dissident “Alexander”, and his son “Sacha” are all named Alexander Ivanov. I briefly thought the Colonel was as well, but I’d misread the script. “What are the chances?” Well, “Ivan” is “John”, so “Ivanov” (which is either the commonest or second-commonest surname in Russia, depending on where you look) is “Jones”. What are the chances of seeing more than one Jones on stage within the space of four months?

    A historical note: at the time the play premièred in 1977, there was a high-profile official-secrets case under way in Britain known (because of the initials of its three defendants) as the ABC case. I think that’s what’s being alluded to in the play’s speech about the detention of a whole load of people known only by letters of the alphabet, which in turn is alluded to in the form of your review. These days, of course, it means naff all to anyone.

  2. TTC Says:

    I totally enjoyed this piece although it’s worth noting that the score is largely a Shostakovitch pastiche (rather than the earlier work of Tchaikovsky), who himself had major problems under the Soviets.

    Whilst the alphabet speech might mean “naff all” contextually, it’s still a damn well written passage that has lost little of its power over the last thirty years.


  3. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Beg to differ. I think it’s emblematic of a problem with the whole piece, that it’s from a different world and its resonance in this one is severely diminished. More detailed argument at (and also a Tom Morris/Tom Stoppard confusion in the opening para, dearie me).

  4. sandown Says:

    Yes — it is typical of the subsidised theatre to put on this play thirty years too late. Criticism of a Communist regime was not considered “comme il faut” by the leftists who monopolized the public-sector drama during the whole of that Cold War period.

    As a result, most of Tom Stoppard’s new plays, as distinct from his versions or translations, went on in the commercial theatre, much to the West End’s benefit.

  5. TTC Says:

    Ian: Very interesting article you’ve written there but I can’t say I entirely agree. Specifics have of course changed but your “Us and Them” is simplistic. Even if what Stoppard was suggesting at the time of writing is far from what an audience will take now (and I’m not sure this is true), personally I find it bizarre to suggest the piece doesn’t have resonance with the modern world (and you only have to venture down the road to the Old Vic to see a piece being premiered now that has little of the interest this thirty year old piece has). The ABC speech might no longer be a part of world changing events but it’s dramatically effective if nothing else. Maybe it acts on a more emotive rather than intellectual level (although I didn’t really find that myself) but there is still much that is thought provoking in this work.

    sandown: Plenty of Stoppard’s work was premiered at subsidised theatres (although it’s a testament to the wide appeal of his work that commercial theatre has done so well out of him). The National itself has had more than its fair share. “Good Boy” was premiered next door at the Royal Festival Hall, a subsidised institution.

    Regardless of whether you think the play still has much impact it’s foolish to suggest such works shouldn’t be revived simply because they are of their time. It would be a great pity if new generations missed out on classic work simply because the cultural context has changed and it’s the job of subsidised theatre to ensure that such pieces are revived (as well as producing new work). This is a perfect example of that, a piece that would never otherwise see the light of day, and to read the broadsheets today would suggest I’m far from the only one who believes this one was worth reviving.


  6. Great review as always Whingers!

    Pleased that Andrew at least enjoyed it! 😉

  7. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    TTC: Yes, I agree that “Us and Them” is a simplistic model for today’s world (which I’d argue is one of an “Us” in search of a “Them”, and in trying to fabricate one, becoming Them ourselves). My point is that simplism is Stoppard’s, not mine. And for me it remains his model even in “Rock ‘n’ Roll”, which is written largely in the key of “I told you so”. I’d say that as the newer play shows the difficulties of writong *from* this world *to* that one and connecting properly (an argument I made at some length when it premiered, in Theatre Record), so EGBDF shows the difficulties of watching from this world to that one.

    In some ways I think Stoppard’s political worldview is only a more sophisticated version of sandown’s 🙂

  8. Hamish McTavish Says:

    Ivanov might be welshified as Jones, but it would usually be anglicised as “Johnson”. Now what are the chances of seeing more than one Johnson on stage in the space of four months? That is surely the question for the Whingers, no?

  9. Jared Says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one that was driven to near-murderous consequences by the incredible amount of coughing that was going on. It began to get quite upsetting after 25 minutes or so of literally non-stop cough tennis being played across the auditorium.

  10. I find it bizarre that anyone should think this piece has lost any of its relevance. ‘Resonance severely diminished.’ ??
    Certainly not. Even if you think there’s something wrong with Stoppard’s political views (I certainly don’t) it was a terrific piece of theatre. And at the preview I went to, nobody coughed.

  11. “Now what are the chances of seeing more than one Johnson on stage in the space of four months?”

    Is this meant to be filthy, Hamish?

  12. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Well, I’ve explained my reasons for saying what I’ve said about the piece’s relevance, and I’ve said that I hold that view notwithstanding that some of the same stuff is still going on in Russia. (The fact that the world today includes birds doesn’t mean that comments about the era of dinosaurs are still relevant – for the avoidance of doubt, that’s an analogy on lineal relationship and genetic similarity, not on scale or danger.) All I’ve seen by way of counter-argument is fervent declaration, which doesn’t generally work as persuasion.

  13. We’re a bit worried about the intellectual tone of some of these comments.

    We have had to scold playwrights about this in the past.

    If you wish to have this kind of “informed debate” may we respectfully suggest you hold them somewhere more appropriate.

    Places where this kind of behaviour is not only tolerated but actively encouraged include Mr Haydon’s blog but if you want a mix of highbrow discussion and loonies, we can also recommend The Guardian blog.

  14. Aw, thank you. I think.

    I’d just like to point out that my last comment on this thread was a willy joke. That is all.

  15. Hamish McTavish Says:

    I am happy to confirm no intellectual intent, merely smut.

  16. Suzie Bee Says:

    Saw it tonight. Wonderful. Utterly wonderful. Though I absolutely agree that only the National could ever have staged it.

  17. Jim Says:

    Is the West End Whinger complaint about intellectual debate for real or am I missing something? Why would you ever, even jokingly discourage people from blogging on your (err……blog) site? I also didn’t realise playwrights were cuing up to blog on this website (as good as it often is). I was obviously mistaken…..

    Perhaps I misread the tone.

  18. Tom Says:

    Just seen the 2010 version. Well, I thought it was rather good: I loved the whole orchestra thing, and I am pleased to say there was no coughing, though someone’s mobile did go off, grrrr….

    The imperfection of the play for me is that its universality is lost by putting it in the specific context of Soviet Russia: it looks like Russian-bashing, retelling a now old story, when the Russians aren’t there to defend themselves.

    Having said that, 2 comments: my Russian companion, who was there to defend her country, thought the play would do a lot of Russians good- after all, unlike the Germans, many Russians (and certainly the state) have never come to terms with their past. And my second comment would be on the theme of the hunger strike and Ivanov’s statement that the authorities could not let him die: ironically, in Putin’s post-Soviet Russia, there is no ideology left, only the realisation that those in power can get away with anything they like, including the murder in the international public eye of those they incarcerate. Think Sergey Magnitsky.

    Oh, and couldn’t they have got someone to teach them to pronounce babushka and Ivanov properly? Not BabOOOOshka as Kate Bush used to sing, but BAH-bushka, stress on the first syllable. And not EEEvanov, but IvanOV.

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