Rock ‘n’ Roll is Hild Bede Theatre’s first theatrical endeavor of the academic year. It traces the political histories of mainly Czechoslovakia, but also of the United Kingdom. The play offers the audience a traversal through the political developments of both countries, starting from 1968, the complexity of which is only ameliorated by the individualisation of that struggle and of course, the rock and roll.
Considering that this is Edward Wheatley’s first ever directorial venture, it is to his commendation that he has managed to pull off Stoppard’s tour-de-force with little to no hiccups. On occasion the actors did trip over lines, the lights were too slow for the transitions, and the volume of the music in transitions was unevenly adjusted. These blusters must be ironed out in future performances in order to not distract the audience from the play at large, but they did in no way detract from the overall success of the production on its first night.
Special regards must be given to the production team for their set design which was able to smoothly translate from Prague, to Cambridge, and back again. The continuous adjustments of various posters and other bric-a-brac throughout the play gave a seamless impression of the gradual passage of time and the alteration in tastes of the home-owner. Despite these touches, a slight complaint is that objects of no permanence like beer bottles should at least be moved from year to year.
The choice of wallpaper and leather sofa, which remained on stage through most of the play, also gave it a feeling of homeliness which aptly contrasted with the political nature of the drama itself. Use of the floor in front of the main stage and the side stage best adapted the very large venue of Caedmon Hall for this small-scale production. A particularly pleasing touch were the candles used for the wall of John Lennon, which remained lit throughout a large part of the scenes after the interval. These created an atmosphere of reverence for rock and roll and perpetuated the symbolism of the genre’s durability.
A further pleasant feature was the lack of noticeably weak performers. Special mentions must go to Tristan Carman, who portrayed Max, an idealist, old-school Communist, and his wife in the production, Eleanor, played by Claire Forster. Together they presented flawless character progression from energetic intellectuals to those afflicted by mental and physical decline. Out of all the couples in the play they had the strongest connection and dynamic, and were one of the few who were able to reach the necessary level of emotional intensity in moments of distress.
Elliot Mather, playing Milan, despite little stage time, was perfectly able to capture the mannerisms of a petty bureaucrat. Last but certainly not least, Wesley Milligan’s guitar-playing as a rock and roll icon was a standout moment in the play and made this production truly unique. In contrast Jan Globisz, as Jan, and Steph Sarratt, as Esme, were too subdued at the beginning of the play and only really achieved semblance of believability in their characterization after the interval. Their lines often lacked conviction and their emotional responses appeared too practiced to be genuine.
Due to the difficulty of the play’s subject matter, all but few members of the cast occasionally neglected the necessary amount of projection for the audience at the back to be able to dissemble certain nuances. In a play which for many will offer new contextual material, projection is critical for full audience immersion and understanding. Fortunately, like many other mistakes in the first run this can be easily amended by the next performance.
Overall, this is a play that demands the audience’s concentration but in the end rewards the playgoers with an alternate historical synopsis of a communist and socialist past, full of personal drama and much-loved classics of the rock and roll genre.
‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is on at Caedmon Hall, Hild Bede, until 14 November.
Photograph: Nina Hudson