A Dish of Tea With Dr Johnson

3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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If you don’t remember Robbie Coltrane’s turn as a hyperintellectual bore of a Dr Samuel Johnson in the third series of ‘Blackadder’, it’s not hard to generate your own stereotype of the polymath creator of the first English dictionary. But this gently quirky character study, devised by Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint company, is a powerful antidote to such silliness.

Ian Redford is superb in the title role, playing the Lichfield-born Johnson with a solid West Midland burr and a hefty sense of self-doubt, his towering achievements having left him less than wealthy, his rigorous morality putting the

kibosh on his romantic happiness. It’s a compelling portrait of the loneliness of forging one’s own path and despite dispensing some timeless aphorism or other in pretty much every sentence, Redford binds it all together with bittersweet naturalism.

Elsewhere the production is less satisfying. Drafted in at the last moment to replace co-deviser Russell Barr – unfortunately unwell – Luke Griffin plays most other parts in the play, but only really nails it as Johnson’s cocksure sidekick Boswell.

Trudie Styler brings a tart, subversive energy to the role of Johnson’s true love Hester Thrale, but she only appears in the last 20 minutes, which opens up Stafford-Clark’s hitherto static production to the point where one questions the point of the constrictive earlier format.

I’m guessing it all worked better with the intended cast. But certainly no faults should detract from Redford’s fine central performance.

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