An intimate drama of imprisonment and suffering shares the stage with a full symphony orchestra. Tom Stoppard’s witty wordplay jostles for space with a Shostakovitch spoof scored by Andre Previn. It is a show that seeks to move, entertain, inform and dazzle – all of this in just over an hour. Wildly ambitious and insanely inventive, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is also an absolute theatrical delight.
Alexander Ivanov has been sent to a mental asylum in Communist Russia. The reason for his confinement? Dissent against the state, and (in a hideous piece of irony that the play explores to the full) for publicly stating that sane people are being put into mental hospitals by the oppressive regime. Sharing his cell is another man, also named Alexander Ivanov, a genuine schizophrenic who hears an orchestra in his head. Ivanov is faced with an impossible moral choice – renounce his former beliefs and admit ‘insanity’, or stay in the mental hospital for speaking the truth. There is a third way out, if he has the courage to take it; death by hunger strike. But complicating matters further is his son Sacha, who wants his father back and will be broken by his death. The stage is set for a classic struggle of conscience, of paternal duty versus social responsibility.
In different hands this could be dryly earnest stuff, but the wit and theatrical showmanship combine to make it something rather special. Rather than diluting the potency of the human story at the centre of the play, the flamboyant presentation enhances it. The orchestra is a part of the set and the cast – characters suddenly cast down instruments and appear from the seats, and at one point almost the entire orchestra comes alive for an elaborate dance piece. It sounds crazy, but it works – the numbing, Orwellian oppression imposed by the state contrasted with the playful delights of poetry, music, dance and theatre. Slender and tender, witty and moving, it is, as Michael Billington says, a piece of total theatre.