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Dinner With Groucho review: Frank McGuinness’s new play is a surreal, smart and funny reinvention of an odd pairing

Dublin Theatre Festival: This reimagined meeting between Groucho Marx and TS Eliot is delivered with breakneck speed, comic timing and subtlety

Dinner With Groucho

Civic Theatre, Tallaght

Tom: Have I finished do you think?

Groucho: I doubt it.

Tom: And I hope you may be right, but I have. Finished, finished entirely. My bag of tricks is empty. The act is winding down. You have seen all I can do — I hope you find it amusing.

Reflective, poignant words, spoken by one of the great modernist poets, to a celebrated American wit, vaudevillian and comedian, both “on the edge of heaven”, in a play written by a writer also long celebrated in his game. Gulp.


Immediately preceding this, TS Eliot had reached over to Groucho Marx’s breast pocket, to gently tug out the handkerchief he had just given him, which is tied to another, tied to another, tied to another. And so on. The magic trick undercuts the pathos, without removing it. As do the quick-fire wit and inventive absurdity of the entire piece.

Who knew TS Eliot was a nifty magician? Not historical truth, we think, but that is part of the imaginative leap that is this nugget of magic.

Eliot and Marx, who admired each other, did in fact have a dinner together, but it was reputedly a disappointing interlude. This is not that dinner. Frank McGuinness, author of this play, takes the fact and runs with it, creating an alternative version, in a script that’s sharp, funny, smart and delicious, delivered with breakneck speed, comic timing, and subtlety.

For the cross-section of dream, memory and fantasy bound up in a tight, skilled and comic package, Joan Bergin’s costumes and Conor Linehan’s score are perfectly judged

In this B*spoke Theatre Company production, Ian Bartholomew is Groucho, Greg Hicks is Eliot: recognisable, catching an essence, without being caricature. It’s a comic and intellectual riff on the unlikely pairing, with the arch deadpan of the mysterious Proprietor, perhaps called Marguerite (Ingrid Craigie) shaping it. “To be or not to be … He got the wrong question,” she observes. “Who is that woman?” asks Groucho, more than once.

Seated at a table in a restaurant of sorts, on Adam Wiltshire’s evocative set with pleasing symmetry and horizon, they start on chicken soup — or is it Duck Soup? — and rattle through a glorious mishmash, an often Marx Brothers-style interplay on all sorts of references: Margate sands, Lear, Israeli champagne, Alsace (Lorraine; it ended in a quiche). And silence.

For the cross-section of dream, memory and fantasy bound up in a tight, skilled and comic package, Joan Bergin’s costumes and Conor Linehan’s score are perfectly judged.

In that package of magic there’s singing, too, including Marie Lloyd’s The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery. And dancing. Dancing! Very little cannot be improved by dancing, surely, and here it’s a surprise and a joy, both funny and accomplished. Quite like the rest of this entertaining, slightly loopers show.

At Civic Theatre, Tallaght, until Saturday, October 1st, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, then at Belfast International Arts Festival from Wednesday, October 5th, to Sunday, October 9th, followed by dates in Oxford and London

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times