A Dish of Tea With Dr Johnson is like a rich fruit cake stuffed full of wit and bon mots. It has been adapted by the two performers, Ian Redford and Russell Barr, along with the director Max Stafford Clark for Out of Joint theatre company and it delivers exactly what the title promises, never a bad thing. We are welcomed into Dr Johnson’s household and allowed to eavesdrop on the conversation of the great man and his biographer James Boswell. As they talk, sometimes to each other and sometimes directly to us as guests of the house, we are drawn into Dr Johnson’s life and times and allowed to get to know a complex and difficult man with a large heart, a sharp wit and a mighty intellect. It is a clever script, fast paced, funny and touching, and just about manages to get away with cramming in more of Johnson’s familiar quotes into an hour and a half than it has any right to.
The acting throughout is very good. As well as playing Boswell Russell Barr also plays other people who were around Dr Johnson, including King George III, Lady Flora MacDonald and Oliver Goldsmith. The most touching of these other characters is Mrs Hester Thrale, his closest friend and confidante. People wondered then exactly what was going on between them, and we are still left wondering now. All of these characters are sketched in quickly and skilfully with the smallest of details and he does a very good job. Ian Redford is a large warm irascible presence as Dr Johnson, bringing him to life convincingly, not easy when he is asked to play a man who was very definitely a one off, one of the most remarkable men of his time.
There is a third performer on stage and I know that at least one of the actors won’t mind her taking up part of this review as she belongs to him. Katie is an elderly black and white Jack Russell who Russell Barr rescued from a difficult time stuck in a tower block and she is adorable. It has to be said though, that while she is blessed with great stage presence, playing Hodge the cat is a bit too much of a stretch for her- well outside her range. She performed with great enthusiasm for us in Scarborough, eating her dinner with impressive attention to detail and even part building by managing (after some effort) to get up onto one of the chairs, gaining a round of applause and enjoying an unintended moment in the spotlight.
A small treat of a show with more substance to it than this kind of theatre sometimes has. It is so good to see theatre of this kind in Scarborough. Chris Monks, the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph is obviously making a big effort to broaden the range of shows that come here and allow us to see touring shows that we might not have been able to see in the past. I really hope that he is able to continue this policy in the current financial climate as it is enormously welcome.