On the way home from Patrick Marbers scintillating production of Travesties, I tried to make up a limerick starting: There once was a playwright called Stoppard, inspired by the scene conducted entirely in limericks in his 1974 play. But I needed the great mans help. Tom Stoppard wrote Travesties in his 30s and, watching this revival, one has the sense of a playwright intoxicated by his own brilliance. This is a literary Babel some of it in Russian, much of it in rhyme, with no plot and no brakes. It is about art, literature, revolution and inconsequence. And yet it is an impeccably constructed or deconstructed literary romp.Gloriously over-the-top: Freddie Fox as Tristan Tzara with Tom Hollanders Henry Carr. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
A top-notch cast is led by Tom Hollander as forgetful nonentity Henry Carr, a former British consul in Switzerland, whose self-importance depends on connections: he swanks about having known James Joyce, Lenin and dadaist artist Tristan Tzara. Joyce was in Zurich, in 1917, directing The Importance of Being Earnest. Carr played Algernon, fell out with Joyce and subsequently became a footnote in Ulysses. Carr sometimes alludes to the other one Oscar Wilde. His name, like a dirty word, is never spoken although Gwendolen and Cecily escape The Importance of Being Earnest to drop in on Stoppards play. That is the sort of work it is: teeming with playful ideas, audacious pastiche, triple takes.
Hollander returns to the stage after six years and is sensational as Carr. Short and stooped, he holds his head stiffly as a tortoise, without seeming to move his neck. His eyes pop with wonder at his recollections. He shuffles about in dowdy dressing gown and battered straw hat he was, in his youth, a tweed snob. Hollander does more than hold the evening together; he makes this old bore and first world war veteran compulsively watchable.
Freddie Fox plays Tristan Tzara in a dapper, gloriously over-the-top way, flinging his body around, draping himself on to a chair as if he were merchandise (the jokes about dada are unstoppable: Dada, what did you do in the Great War?). James Joyce is the plays linchpin and Peter McDonald presents him in a comically understated way until the fantastic moment when he pulls an actual white rabbit out of his hat.
Forbes Massons Lenin is entertaining as not much more than a walk-on part (that itself is a joke). Clare Fosters Cecily and Amy Morgans Gwendolen take a rivalrous tea for two in which they sing, ever more agitated songbirds one of the evenings high points.
Travesties is, in its anarchic and magical exuberance, a tonic from start to finish and if this production does not transfer to the West End, Ill eat my hat and Joyces rabbit with it.
At the Menier Chocolate Factory, London until 19 November