Wed 16th – Sat 19th October 2013


Daveen Koh

at 10:04 on 17th Oct 2013



Sex, literature, chaos theory and a show-stealing tortoise — there’s a lot going on in student company Milk and Two Sugars' heady but illuminating 20th anniversary production of Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece, Arcadia. But, in no small part due to Stoppard’s wit and the cast’s exuberance, the play can be distilled in a few of Bruce Springsteen’s famous words: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” If you’ve ever longed for something, or are intrigued by enigmatic links between people that can span centuries (in the style of Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 and the film adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), then this ardent and clever play is worth watching more than once.

Rife with codes and keys, Arcadia is a quest about quests. Everyone is looking for something — their own Arcadia perhaps. They know that they are, in all probability, doomed to fail. But this realization does not quell their desperation. It is 1809 at Sibley Park, a country house in Derbyshire, and the landscape is about to change. The gardener, Richard Noakes (Jonathan Purkiss), unveils plans to transform the estate’s gardens from harmonious and pastoral to more fashionable Gothic. His employer, Lady Croom (Georgina Heller), does not share his enthusiasm. Other changes — intellectual, mathematical and sexual — are also introduced in the play’s frenetic opening. ”What is carnal embrace?” Thomasina Coverly (Amelia Sparling), a spirited 13-year-old genius asks her irascible tutor Septimus Hodge (David Shields). Septimus’ answer does not disappoint, as his answers rarely do. He clarifies that sex is not love; sex is far “nicer.” Sparling and Shields’ charged yet delicate exchanges are the play’s standout performances, infusing the show with believability and nuance rarely matched in later scenes.

The play frequently shuttles between the 19th and the 20th century although the location stays the same, as does the intensity of the characters’ pursuits. Valentine Coverly (Peter Huhne), a relative of Thomasina’s and mathematics student, pores over the gamekeeping books and models population dynamics. There is more of Thomasina in Valentine’s sister Chloe (Phoebe Hames), whose rambunctiousness contrasts with Valentine’s studied gravity. The fame-hungry, reckless Bernard Nightingale (an appropriately roguish Ed Barr-Sim) arrives at Sidley in search of evidence to prove that Lord Byron had been a guest there. Valentine and Bernard also pursue the lively but serious Hannah Jarvis (Carla Kingham), but to no avail. Hannah, best-selling author of a book on Caroline Lamb, is drawn to the mysterious Hermit of Sibley Park, who left a houseful of papers covered in mathematical workings. It is Hannah who solves this mystery and perhaps a more important one — she realizes that the meaning of searching is in the asking. It’s almost disappointing that Hannah spells out this solution with epiphanous glee, when so much of the play involves diligent sleuthing on the audience’s part.

Stoppard’s script sparkles with an endless stream of literary and scientific references; this neither obfuscates nor intimidates because he ensures that every theory or author mentioned more than fleetingly is explained by the characters. The audience learns alongside the characters, and everyone is tossed into the tumult of searching. Nevertheless, the meanderings between times and theories can prove confusing for first time viewers, especially those foreign to Stoppard’s references, as clues and revelations about identities and fates are often mentioned in passing. This is in spite of James Fennemore’s very competent direction, no easy task given the volume of verbal sparring going on in the play. The ensemble is poised and a delight to watch; their exchanges while not always evenly performed are consistently spirited. There is perhaps too little not to like about this production of Arcadia, buoyed by revelations, small and large, such as when much Valentine lovingly shares his lunch with his pet, much to Bernard’s chagrin.


Rosie Oxbury

at 12:20 on 19th Oct 2013



I had high expectations of Arcadia. As a student production, it was fantastic; but that it was staged in the Playhouse, and put on by an experienced team of directors and producers, not to mention seasoned actors, led me to expect more than the play delivered.

First of all, the positives: the set was beautiful – minimalist yet detailed, and encapsulating the spirit of the production (credit to stage designer Mica Schlosser). The set featured three tall windows with a clock set in the top of the middle of them; a tastefully cluttered table at centre-stage; a couple of portraits and some bookshelves featured, but did not encroach, at the edges. In the second half, a handful of paper lanterns appeared carefully placed in suspension outside the windows. It perfectly bridged Regency architecture to quirky, postmodern Stoppard. A winning feature was the clock: as the lights dimmed at the opening of the first scene, the clock glowed and the hands spun into action, eliciting a gasp from the audience. The costumes (by Anouska Lester) likewise were understated yet showed an excellent attention to detail. Lighting (by John Evans), similarly, was managed beautifully; the pastel colouring of the set meant that a change in the lighting appeared to totally transform the scene.

In general, I cannot fault the acting. David Shields in particular shone in the role of Septimus, but also meriting attention were Amelia Sparling as Thomasina and Georgina Hellier as Lady Croom. The chemistry between Shields and Sparling was consistently compelling. The comedy succeeded throughout in producing audible laughter from the audience.

It was in the more serious parts of the dialogue, however, that the play faltered – at these points, while the acting was still excellent, somehow the play lacked dynamism. At times the audience could be heard shuffling in their seats as the play failed to hold the audience’s attention. Perhaps this was because the comic scenes tended to take up more of the stage space and involve the audience more directly – whereas the scenes in which characters discussed the whereabouts of Lord Byron in 1809 around the relatively small table were unfortunately not as engaging. At the interval, I heard members of the audience remark that they did not understand what was going on.

The second half definitely picked up: the comedy was still there, but the dialogue seemed to have gained energy, and the audience appeared more alert. Again, lighting was used especially effectively in the final scene. I would question the decision to have the butler dancing to modern music in the interval: while it was funny the first time, after the joke was repeated three times it had lost some of its flavour. A bigger problem was that what was happening simply was not brought across to the audience as well as it might have been. For instance, the point at which the play ends, the audience is supposed to be aware, is the night of Thomasina’s death; although this was intimated in the change of lighting at the end, the emotional impact of this got lost somewhere along the line. And the overarching serious theme of the irreversability of time was arguably undermined by the antics of the interval.

In conclusion, this production of Arcadia is beautifully executed but perhaps does not live up to its own potential.


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