Arcadia -- Theater Review

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There are many terrific productions running in London's West End but none better than the revival of "Arcadia" at the Duke of York's Theatre, which is probably Tom Stoppard's finest play.

Given that the Czech-born British playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter's output includes such gems as "Tapestries," "Jumpers" and Rock-and-Roll," that is really saying something.

In "Arcadia," Stoppard achieves the perfect blend of ideas and great comedy so that his intellectual flights are accessible and the laughs are many. Besides challenging the brain, it also warms the heart.

The setting is an English country house in Derbyshire where events sometime early in the 19th century are being investigated in modern times. Thus there are two time frames. The initial situation centers on a supremely bright teen named Thomasina (Jessie Cave), whose wit and insight constantly surprise her tutor, a lesser poet but a sharp character named Septimus Hodge (Dan Stevens).

Thomasina is inquisitive beyond her years and ready to tackle the scientific theories of Newton and mathematical theories of Fermat. Hodge encourages her brilliance while dallying with the older women of the household.

Cut to the present day, where an opportunistic scholar named Nightingale (Neil Pearson) is drawn to the house by literary clues that suggest the place was the setting of a duel involving Lord Byron over Lady Caroline Lamb. Current occupants Hannah Jarvis (Samantha Bond) and Valentine Coverly (Ed Stoppard, the playwright's son) are meanwhile addressing the key elements of the second law of aerodynamics.

The scene changes from the present to the past with great ease as Stoppard raises questions of how what is bequeathed by literary and scientific greats serves often only to mystify and mislead future scholars. The playwright's great gift is to write on such a high level of intelligence and wit while taking the audience along with him all the way.

The sequences in the 19th century also involve the exquisite Lady Croom (Nancy Carroll), who combines serene hauteur with a taste for fun and games in the gazebo. Carroll's performance is delicious and well matched by Cave, Stevens, Bond and Stoppard in particular, though the entire cast is in top form.

Director David Leveaux is helped greatly by Hildegard Bechtler's evocative set design and Paul Anderson's lighting.

Venue: Duke of York's Theatre, London (through Sept. 12)
Cast: Samantha Bond, Dan Stevens, Nancy Carroll, Neil Pearson, Jessie Cave, Ed Stoppard
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Director: David Leveaux
Set designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume designer: Amy Roberts
Lighting designer: Paul Anderson
Sound designer: Simon Baker for Autograph
Music: Corin Buckeridge
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