Review: A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson, Customs House.

advance publicity photos for A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson
advance publicity photos for A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson
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THEY were times of rebellion, innovation and national debt being blamed on a Scottish Prime Minister.

No, I’m not talking about the past couple of months, but the times of Dr Samuel Johnson, he of dictionary fame.

A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson, performed by Out of Joint and directed by Max Stafford-Clark, gives us its take on the curious 18th Century character and the interesting period in which he lived.

The 90-minute play, staged without an interval, is studded with the poet, essayist and lexicographer’s best-known and most amusing quotes, and also tries to show us some of the less well-trodden parts of his life.

Co-adapter Ian Redford has the honour of playing Dr Johnson, giving the audience an entertaining interpretation of the great man’s pomposity and bombasticity, while keeping us feeling endeared towards the central character.

Fellow adapter Russell Barr has no less noble a part – or parts, I should say, stepping into the shoes of at least eight different characters, shifting seamlessly from portraying the likes of King George III to “peevish” poet Anna Williams.

His main part was James Boswell, the Scottish laird and lawyer who wrote Johnson’s biography.

It is his work from which the play is adapted.

The set consists of two chairs, a table, a dusty book, a satchel and a dog food bowl from which Hodge the cat – played by Katie the dog – eats at the beginning of the performance.

The performances and direction, however, manage to use these simple props to take us from London to the Hebrides – where Barr plays another famous character of the age, Flora MacDonald.

Although it was Katie the dog who stole the show, it was veteran actress Trudie Styler – aka Mrs Sting – who stole the headlines, appearing for the last 15 minutes or so as Hester Thrale, the society hostess who was Johnson’s final unrequited love

Styler’s performance was unquestionably good, and her appearance on the South Shields leg of the production’s tour is a modest coup for the Customs House, but this is a play, cast and crew in need of no big names – or an opulent set for that matter

A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson is the latest in a long tradition of small-scale quality productions at the Customs House and it is these gems that really represent the best in modern British theatre.