It has been an exciting year for Stoppard fans; Travesties played to utterly rapt audiences in the Apollo, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was no less successful in its demonstration of Stoppard’s innovation and bubbling wit (you can read culturised’s thoughts on that production here) and Laurence Fox is currently at the Rose gallivanting round as the freakishly witty writer Henry in Stoppard’s semi auto-biographical The Real Thing. Rather than attempting to follow on from these acts, the Theatre of Heaven and Hell have tried a different tack; bringing to the stage a radio play of which critics have previously stated “radio alone can produce it persuasively”[1]. Ignoring this warning, The Theatre of Heaven and Hell push on to give a rendition of Stoppard which, whilst a little rough round the edges, is a refreshingly visceral take on a writer who has often been accused with the cry too clever by half!

The narrative revolves around Frank’s search for his missing wife Gladys, who he is sure is the speaking clock. The search is constantly thwarted by bustling bureaucrats and the machinations of the porters who must devote adequate time for lunch breaks. Frank’s mad search for Gladys is punctuated intermittently with her wistful soliloquising on the nature of time “And it doesn’t go tick… It just goes”[2]: The result is halfway house between an exercise in slapstick absurdism and a lament of the exhausting nature of endless timekeeping, appointment making and the deadly authority we give to supposedly trivial aspects of our existence.

By putting the play on stage it takes away somewhat from the mysterious nature of where Gladys is and what she has become: She can no longer be machine and woman “a condition without any visible equivalent”[3]. Rather than a figure lost in an abstract limbo between humanity and a personification of time; we see her on stage as a woman trapped in an office, forced against her will to inform strangers of the time of day which she finds increasingly arbitrary. This diminishes the mystery of Gladys’ dialogue to a certain extent, making it possible to consider her a weary civil servant more than a concept in physical form.

Although it diminishes aspects of Stoppard’s highfalutin narrative, presenting Gladys in the physical space gives much more weight to the injustice and pain caused by her imprisonment as TIM – the speaking clock. The play has become less about Gladys coming to terms with “an inkling of infinity”[4] and more about a woman trapped helplessly in a maze of bureaucracy and impotent action. A powerful performance by Sarah Day Smith furthers brings out her humanity and the bitterness she feels for the mechanical and uninspired goings on of day-to-day life. Her speeches form breaks in the action which give a sense of an inaudible metronome forcing the dialogue to keep pace: though Gladys clearly desires a rest from it all, she must keep up with the clock despite her railings against the futility of doing so “…At the third stroke… I don’t think I’ll bother”[5].

Nicholas Bright plays the somewhat buffoonish but well intentioned Frank, whose desperate search for his wife is hindered in that he too is a victim of meticulous timekeeping, and try as he might, he cannot scrape enough minutes off his bus route to find the time to save his Gladys from the hellish scheduling limbo that has been imposed on her. Bright, for the most part is successfully acting the clown, but we see occasional glimpses of a real desperation and longing for his lost wife.

Bright’s earnest performance as Frank becomes a salve to Gladys’ disillusionment with all of life’s pleasures. The performance demonstrates a well-balanced duality between Frank’s ‘Keep calm, carry on and have a jolly good time’ and Gladys nihilistic analysis of the world she sees around her. Gladys may seem to dismiss Frank, admonishing a joke of his; comparing it unfavourably with more grand high-minded things: “but while I laughed a bumblebee fluttered its wings a million times”, but Sarah Smith champions the part of Gladys which cares more for Frank’s cheerful company than the lonely expanses of infinity. Smith’s performance raises the emotional stakes, portraying Gladys’ woeful situation as one comprised as much with loneliness as it is with a weariness of trying to keep up with time.

Theatre of Heaven and Hell show us the world through Gladys’ tired eyes and as the actors go through the motions of the post office’s daily business. Brian Eastty, Jake Francis and Elena Clements fare well in creating tableaus of a clockwork farce, as Gladys castigates the performers reliance on “the frogsong of clockwindings”[6] they perform a stilted dance of monotonous day-to-day workings with a twinkling in the eye that might suggest some acknowledgement of the futility of their cuckoo clock dance. The First Lord (Darren Ruston) insinuates himself into the chorus, giving the audience no reason to suspect him of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing until his final reveal. Darren Ruston portrays the First Lord in such a light, it seems the mind-breaking dullness of the world’s bureaucracy is not just the way of things, but rather a villainous machination of a foppish politician. His villainy is not looked for but well appreciated. The actors are somewhat let down by a lacklustre set, dominated by half-hearted British-styled Dali knock offs. However a number of badly made and brightly coloured telephones, which construct the boundaries of Gladys’ prison/office, add to the comical aesthetic of the ridiculous rubbing shoulders with the sombre.

Theatre of Heaven and Hell have reimagined Stoppard’s radio play, rather than dramatizing the mysterious of the true nature of time, the production focuses more on the play’s dialogue with how we perceive and use the time we have. It makes for a comic and riveting forty-one minutes and thirty-two seconds.

[1] Elissa S. Guralnick, Stoppard’s radio and television plays, Cambridge companion to Stoppard. (Cambridge UP 2001), 71

[2] Tom Stoppard, If you’re Glad I’ll be Frank. (Faber and Faber, 1969), 15

[3] Elissa S. Guralnick, Stoppard’s radio and television plays, Cambridge companion to Stoppard. (Cambridge UP 2001), 71

[4] Tom Stoppard, If you’re Glad I’ll be Frank. (Faber and Faber, 1969),  15

[5] Ibid, 15

[6] Tom Stoppard, If you’re Glad I’ll be Frank. (Faber and Faber, 1969), 19