Two of the greatest creative minds of the twentieth century meet for dinner. In Frank McGuinness’s new play, TS Eliot and Groucho Marx dine together in London, following their years of written correspondence. Inspired by the pair’s real-life meeting, ‘Dinner with Groucho’ imagines the event, setting it in an otherworldly, sandy-floored restaurant - probably a nod to the Margate Sands in Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. Yet, even in such great company, this evening is meek and underwhelming.
Designed by Adam Wiltshire, there is an ethereal quality to Loveday Ingram’s production. A witch-like woman, The Proprietor, played spookily by Ingrid Craig hosts the evening. With a knowing glance and chant, she summons the men into her surreal dining room, primed with a gingham tablecloth, shining cutlery and gleaming wine glasses. In they come - from the past, present or future, to take their seats, ready, for conversation to flow.
Once they arrive, the play starts to become charming – if only for a moment. As Groucho, Ian Bartholomew is eccentric, moustache-twitching and funny. With a spring in his step, he again and again toasts the pair’s good health, giggling as he does. By contrast, Greg Hicks’s Eliot can barely reach a grin. Sour and ailing, he plays the celebrated poet stiffly, as if physically confined tightly by his rigid grey suit. He’s unable to lose himself enough to laugh along with ease; even in the moments of sudden dance, the pair’s physical differences scream loudly. But, the cast’s committed interpretations cannot stop veteran playwright McGuinness’s play from feeling self-indulgent.
With obvious nods to Beckett and Stoppard, it feels like an exercise in passing the time. Soon the pair move away from pleasantries and their mutual adoration for one another to discussions of life and death. One conversation surrounding Eliot’s suspected anti-Semitism is where the men’s differences hit their peak, but with champagne at the ready to cover up their disagreements, they’re halted before they can really get stuck in.
Does it make good drama? Not really. Marx and Eliot’s meeting is a fascinating prospect, but McGuinness’s writing perhaps too accurately channels all the politeness of a first meeting. What we get instead is reference after reference to the men’s great works and obscure quoting of other literary marvels, for no clear reason. Yes, we know Eliot wrote ‘The Waste Land’, but what is the need for it to be quoted, yet again, over another glass of fizz?
Ingram’s beautiful staged production has far more style than its substance. In fact, the whole thing is something of a conundrum. McGuiness has clearly tried to write a play aimed at an audience that has at least some understanding of both his leads; but if you are familiar you’re left searching for meaning. When the bill was finally called, I was relieved; despite the stellar guests, this dinner dragged.