Mary's musings

Mary Hoffman, author of over 90 children's books, including the Stravaganza series and Amazing Grace, has begun a web journal which will be updated roughly once a week. You can read more on

Monday, September 18, 2006

Rock n' Roll

I went to see this new play by Tom Stoppard for rather unworthy motives, i.e. to drool over the divine Rufus Sewell on stage. Bex got us house seats so the view was perfect. Not so the play. In fact I found myself wondering if it would have even been performed had it not been over the signature of Sir Tom.

You've probably already read the reviews (this blog is rather late since I saw the play on 2nd Sept). It is a series of snapshots from 1968, when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia to 1986 and features Jan (Rufus) a graduate student in Cambridge with a taste for decadent Western music, his tutor and the tutor's family. When Jan returns to Prague, he becomes involved in the music of a band called Plastic People of the Universe - the Plastics for short. Their lyrics are subversive and their anarchic attitude frowned on by the Russians and both they and Jan end up in jail.

Meanwhile back in Cambridge the tutor's wife has the cancer that eventually kills her, his daughter, who has romantic yearnings for Jan, gets pregnant and lives in a commune and dreams of Syd Barrett, whom she once saw in the family's garden behaving like the original piper at the gates of dawn.

Time passes, the wife dies and the actor (Sinead Cusack) who played her gets to come back as her own daughter now grown up and still obsessed with Syd Barrett, still hankering after her lost Czech. Rufus (of course this is a totally unbiased account) is stunning as Jan, managing the physical and postural changes from mid-twenties to early middle age brilliantly. Brian Cox was very good as the Communist tutor too, wrestling with whether to stay in the Party or not..

But it isn't a play! The scene changes are punctuated by rock songs of the time including pirate recordings of the Plastic People, at which point a black screen comes up with the song details in white and the hugely amplified sound fills the theatre.

You might have thought all this would be resonant for me, since I was at Cambridge till 1967, was at UCL during the Czech invasion the following year and joined protest marches and fund raising appeals about it. I also lived with a communist from 1970 to 1975 who had tussled with whether to leave the Party in 1968 as many of her friends had in 1956 at the time of the invasion of Hungary. And of course I knew the music, especially Pink Floyd and the Stones - though I'd never heard of the Plastics.

But it was a mishmash not a synthesis and various elements, like the wife's cancer and the fact that all the women were studying Sappho seemed gratuitous. As for stagecraft, Bex and I were getting up to leave when there were two more unexpected and unnecessary scenes. And the idea that a reporter from the Cambridge Evening News would be sent to Prague to file a story on dissidents was so bizarre it made you wonder if Stoppard knew anything about either city. Poor old Syd Barrett's death was a gift to him though, creating an entirely spurious poignancy in that part of the story.


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