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First Night: Arcadia

DON'T attempt to get your head around Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Packed with references to complex theorems, Newton's laws of motion and horticultural fashion, you could be forgiven for thinking you've stumbled into a play for the wickedly intelligent and scientifically inclined. And so it is, but it didn't stop this ordinary Josephine Soap from enjoying a cleverly structured production peppered with sharp humour.

The action takes place in the stately home of Sidley Park in Derbyshire. While the set never changes, time moves back and forth between 1809 and the early 1990s.

In 1809 we meet the child prodigy Thomasina Coverly (Beth Cooke) and her tutor Septimus Hodge (Marty Rea), a friend of Lord Byron.

Thomasina ponders why jam in rice pudding cannot be "unstirred", triggering a debate about the laws of motion.

We discover that Septimus has had an affair with a Mrs Chater, causing her husband, Ezra Chater, (Stephen Swift) to storm in and confront the tutor. Ezra is a second-rate poet who doesn't yet realise that Septimus has publicly slated his work in a review.

The focus switches to 1993. The house is still occupied by Coverlys, among them Valentine Coverly who is researching grouse populations and attempting to apply the theorems he has discovered in Thomasina's copy book. He is joined by the historian Hannah Jarvis (Ingrid Craigie).

Into the mix arrives the pompous scholar Bernard Nightingale (Andrew Whipp) who initially hides his identity from Hannah as he gave her last book a poor review. Bernard is seeking to advance his theory that Ezra Chater was killed by Lord Byron in 1809, believing that the men duelled when Chater discovered Byron was sleeping with his wife.

When the action returns to 1809, we discover that the unseen Lord Byron was caught in Mrs Chater's bedroom.

As the play progresses, the lines between 1809 and 1903 become increasingly blurred until both eras appear to collide.

In his Gate Theatre debut, Andrew Whipp owns the stage as the arrogant, self-centred Bernard, and the dialogue rivals the best Wildean quips.


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