Bloomsday Travesties - photo by Christa HillLike Alan Moore’s work, Lost Girls, Tom Stoppard’s Travesties holds at its centre an unlikely confluence of popular figures in one location at the same time. While Moore’s sublime book is complete fiction, Stoppard’s script has some modicum truth underneath the hijinks and experimentation.

Henry Carr recalls being a young man in Zurich in 1917. James Joyce is also there, staging a production of The Importance of Being Earnest as he finishes his soon-to-be masterpiece, Ulysses, and has given Henry one of the leading roles.

While Joyce wrestles with his muse, he also finds himself increasingly in opposition with Tristan Tzara, who is increasingly evangelical on the merits of Dadism. Meanwhile Lenin (with the support of his wife, Nadya) sits at the library every morning to write, working his way slowly east to Russia. Henry’s story is a series of flashbacks, some repeatedly so as Henry struggles with his recollection.

These shifts in time and location are set against the short side of fortyfivedownstair’s rectangular space, which was a little unfortunate as two beams were a particular hindrance to much of the action. Despite the obstructions, director Jennifer Sarah Dean and her cast have done well in making a play that has these surprising shifts in style and tone feel coherent and memorable.

Johnathan Peck has a lovely turn as James Joyce. Physically reserved for the most part, there’s no denying where Joyce’s passion lies, which Johnathan brings out over a charming performance. However, it’s not all artistry and flair.

There’s an intellectual brutality within Joyce that occasionally rises to the surface, perhaps best displayed in one of the play’s most effective sequences: Tristan Tzara makes his case for an evolved, albeit destructive, sensibility and philosophy of art with his call to Dadaism, before Joyce turns Tzara’s condescension ferociously in on itself to show the hollowness of Tzara’s logic. It’s only a few lines, but they’re incredibly compelling.

Indeed, Matthew Connell in the role of Tzara commits well to how his character contrasts with Joyce as well as the others passing through. Tref Gare has a delightful role in Bennett, in both the character’s decorum as befits his station, not-to-metion his ability to beat box in a latter unexpected-yet-brillant scene where Stoppard has the characters of Cecily (Gabrielle Sing) and Gwendolen (Joanna Halliday) sing to each other A capella.

Gabrielle and Joanna were the engines of the show, keeping things moving, even as some sections required more effort than others. Completing the tangle were a terrific Syd Brisbane and Milijana Cancar playing Lenin and Lenin’s wife, Nadya, respectively.

While Henry appears as a young man in the middle of the piece, it’s Dion Mills’ performance at the bookends as Henry that really stand out – drawing us delicately into Henry’s unreliable narration before gently easing us out of it at story’s end.

fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 14 June 2019 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 23 June 2019
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Image: Dion Mills features in Travesties – photo by Christa Hill

Review: David Collins