“Dinner with Groucho”, Arcola Theatre

Jeremy Malies in east London
23 November 2022 


Frank McGuinness’s new play is inspired by the unlikely but real-life meeting between poet T.S. Eliot and comic movie star Groucho Marx. Here, they seem to be ghosts having dinner in a limbo or antechamber to heaven. They have corresponded at length prior to this, and these innately modest thoughtful men are big admirers of each other. 


Greg Hicks, Ingrid Craigie and Ian Bartholomew. Photo credit: Ros Kavanagh.


Ian Bartholomew manages to make himself instantly recognizable as Groucho without once going for an easy laugh or allowing his portrayal to suggest a caricature. Bartholomew’s restraint is characteristic of a production that I believe shows great reverence for the text as written. (It comes as no surprise to learn that McGuinness was present at an early read-through and has had some input into this project by b*spoke theatre.) Director Loveday Ingram has closely calibrated the cinematic aspects of Bartholomew’s performance. She certainly invests the madcap charades content (familiar from McGuinness’s play Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me) with much invention but a deal of discipline.  

Greg Hicks is similarly credible as Eliot, conveying a Boston Brahmin refinement but never allowing it to interfere with what I take to be Eliot’s fundamental decency, suspicion of humbug, and almost childlike spirit of enquiry right through to old age. He is genuinely in awe of Marx, and Hicks conveys this adeptly as well as giving us numerous impressive magic tricks having been mentored by consultant Pat Fallon, a member of the Inner Magic Circle. Finally, Eliot tells us that his box of tricks as a poet is empty, and he has not had any verse published in many years. It’s a performance of detail and subtlety, reaching a peak for me when Eliot insists that while he is no longer a poet, he is an employee of Faber and Faber for whom he performs publishing duties that he sees as a noble calling. 

Ingrid Craigie never quite pulls off the ethereal other-worldly role of the restaurant proprietor who must convince us that she has conjured up these two spirits from an underworld. I was surprised that she didn’t make more of the role since she impressed me greatly in The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh at Chichester recently. She does, however, orchestrate a wonderful soft-shoe shuffle by all three and belts out Marie Lloyd’s “The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery”, a number that predates even the characters here by a generation. (I did indeed wish I was up in the gallery, the stalls seats at the Arcola being among the most uncomfortable I can remember.) 

Design by Adam Wiltshire using simple restaurant furniture is effective in evoking the sawdust eating establishment which I took to be an upmarket traditional chophouse. It also features a profusion of glass bauble lights and an abstract backcloth, whose function and symbolism are lost on me. But it would be wrong to push for anything too concrete here, and at times I suspect that all three characters are imagining their counterparts.  

Joan Bergin’s costumes get to the essence of the two men; Groucho’s evening dress could have come off one of his film sets but would see him admitted to any restaurant while Eliot’s tweed three-piece suit is dapper but not vulgar.  

The text teems with brief snatches of Shakespeare, sometimes artfully mangled, and there is a whole sub-theme of King Lear with both characters continually searching for shelter and a resting place. Eliot is intent on expunging memories and keeping a silence that he says is the last refuge of the guilty. 

The best gags come early in the script and, however willowy her presence, Craigie reminds me of the galumphing dowager character portrayed by Margaret Dumont in many of the Marx Brothers films: “I didn’t come here to be insulted!” “Where do you usually go?” This barely raises a titter from a flat press night audience, and good introductory gags based on the titles of Groucho’s films also fall on deaf ears. The Shakespeareian asides are mixed with digressions about Dante and Eugene O’Neill in what is an intertextual evening. 

The overall effect is deliberately sombre and elegiac. Eliot’s verse plays may have redemptive plots but there is no happy ending here. We see two dispirited Americans in semi-senility, way past their creative best and reaching out to each other in London which is home to Eliot (he became a British citizen in early adulthood) but only a tourist destination for Marx. Eliot is trapped in Shakespeare’s plays but is gaining no joy or even solace from them. “Preserve me from his clowns.”  

Ingram excels in maintaining (subtly) the sense that all of this is ghostly, and I am reminded of how a good director will suggest in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls that the dreadful Marlene is seeing the guests in her own mind during the opening dinner-party act. The characters also suggest that they might redo a scene (though this never really happens) in the way that another trio of spirits, the ghosts in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, continually rerun sequences.  

The lines that will remain with me are from Eliot, notably: “You struggle, in so many ways of struggling, to say what you don’t mean.” This is reinforced with a quote from The Waste Land: “On Margate sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” I never really grasped what this play is about though I found it affecting, and the acting from the two principals is first-rate. The meaning is probably buried deep in King Lear or The Waste Land.