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Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard at Hampstead Theatre

Punters beware this is not a play about Rock ‘n’ Roll. I wouldn’t want anyone to go see it thinking it’s going to be like a Glastonbury Festival. It’s actually about Philosophy, Politics and Pop. The Rock ‘n’ Roll of the title refers to the music that features as an analogy to the play’s main theme which is the debate about the meaning of freedom. The play is about liberalism versus communism. Rock ‘n’ Roll is a hook on which to illustrate this debate. It also livens up what would otherwise be a rather tough-going series of high-powered encounters about the meaning of freedom, individual liberty and definitions of the good life.

The soundtrack is terrific featuring some of the classic rock bands of the 60s. The Rolling Stones in particular. But beware, the political exchanges can be hard to follow. The play follows the breakdown of Soviet Communism from the Prague Spring of 1968 to the Rolling Stones playing Prague in 1987 just before the collapse of Communism in 1989. Ironically the bi-centenary of the French Revolution. My advice would be to see this play but to be prepared for some difficult political intricacies and some meanderings down the highways and byways of twentieth-century Communist history. Overall it’s an engaging play but not one of Stoppard’s best.

Jacob Fortune-Lloyd & Nancy Carroll in Rock 'n' Roll. Credit Manuel Harlan.
Jacob Fortune-Lloyd & Nancy Carroll in Rock ‘n’ Roll. Credit Manuel Harlan.

A confluence of May Days by David Hare, A Question of Attribution by Alan Bennett and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Rock ‘n’ Roll written in 2006 is a part autobiographical play about Tom Stoppard’s own life story and the Czech experience of Communism. Born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia in 1937 his Jewish family escaped the Nazis in 1939 and arrived in England in 1946. The character Jan (superbly played by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) stands for what Stoppard might have been had he returned to Czechoslovakia after the War. Jan’s idealism and love of Rock music is pitted against his Cambridge academic mentor, tutor and torturer Max (Nathaniel Parker) the hard-line Communist who remains loyal to the Soviet Union despite Hungary 56 and now Prague 68, the attempt to overthrow the puppet Soviet regime in Czechoslovakia. The play turns on the contrast between Jan and Max. Jan believes in freedom as epitomised by his record collection. Max is an unreconstructed Stalinist who insists that Communism is the answer. We follow Jan and Max as they argue bitterly from 1968 until 1987. Luckily these scenes are short and broken up by musical interludes that feature a soundtrack of classic Rock numbers. The heavy-weight political discourse is sugar-coated by Stoppard’s trademark jokes, puns, witticisms and delicious wordplay. There are ironies here aplenty. Jan though clearly a good guy – a liberal, a rock music aficionado, a good friend – is also hopelessly naive and in many ways a cultural dope. Whereas Max is an appalling bully and frightening ideologue, he does have some strong arguments.

The best scenes in the play are Chekhovian in both inspiration and aspiration. Seated around a wonderful wooden dining table (not kitchen sink but kitchen table drama) again and again scenes in this play echo those moments in Chekhov where families fail to cohere. Nancy Carroll is at the heart of these moments. Playing two parts she manages to capture the joy and the tragedy of these fraught family gatherings. She is a superb performer who gives both her characters Eleanor\Esme enormous vitality and believability. Her showdown with her husband Max is visceral and devastating. And she tops that with a finale that combines Rodin’s The Kiss with Stairway to Heaven. Director Nina Raine is to be congratulated for maintaining momentum in what could otherwise become a seminar and Tingying Dong has done wonderful work with the sound design. The quality of which was excellent.

3 Star Review

1968: Russian tanks have rolled into Czechoslovakia, and Syd Barrett has been dumped by Pink Floyd. Jan, a visiting postgrad at Cambridge, breaks with his old professor Max, a Marxist philosopher, and heads home to Prague with his suitcase full of “socially negative music”. Rock ’n’ Roll covers the ensuing 21 years in the lives of three generations of Max’s family while Jan is caught in the spiral of dissidence in a Communist police state. But it’s a love story too – and then there’s the music…



  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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