A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!



A Dish of Tea with Dr. Johnson


Ian Redford (Samuel Johnson) in A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson (Credit - Bob Workman)

Adapted by Russell Barr, Ian Redford and Max Stafford-Clark,

from James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson and Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.

Directed by Max Stafford-Clark

Designed by Tim Shortall

Lighting by Christopher Nairne

Costume Consultant: Karen Large

Cast: Luke Griffin, Ian Redford, Trudie Styler

Arts Theatre

2 – 24 September 2011


The words of Samuel ‘Dictionary’ Johnson (1709 – 1784), often called Doctor - irascible, intellectual, witty and acrid, were recorded for posterity by his younger friend, Joseph Boswell |(1740 – 1795), the diarist who inadvertently, provided the source for this engrossing play offering a rare window into the inner workings of the man himself. And what interesting workings they are! We see Johnson here as an aging widower, bereft of partner, but prodigious paramour to prestige in the aftermath of the famous English Dictionary he originated and created, about to embark on what would be his final literary challenge – the lives of the English Poets. A largely self-taught man of expression, rather than letters, Johnson’s strongest suit in life and thus, the leading character in this production, was his gift for razor sharp repartee.

A man of many devices, rather than rely on the prestige of means, Johnson’s witty and oft ironic use of language was a delight, especially as portrayed through the girth, crumpled demeanor and considerable acting abilities of Ian Redford who thankfully, retains Johnson’s hearty Lichfield accent. Physically a man with much to encourage denouncement of him at the time – strange tics, excessive gesturing and swift grimacing, as well as firm opinions and flagrant criticism, he nonetheless became a companion to many worthy men of the day, not least among them, his ultimate biographer, James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck, well played here by Luke Griffin, who imbues his Edinburgh born lawyer with the blind arrogance of youth, as well as a sense of the reckless sexism of the time, which he laments, plagued him with Gonorrhea. But the crux of the matter is that Boswell’s talk also reveals that he suffers from what was then termed melancholia, a metal affliction both he and Johnson, whom it has been recently speculated, given his mannerisms, most probably suffered from Tourette's syndrome, shared. Such realisations enable deeper understanding of the life long bond between Boswell and Johnson with the older man offering advice, born of experience on all matters, despite his unfounded loathing of Scots.

If the word ‘actor’ was personified, in Johnson’s dictionary or any other, Ian Redford would surely be the very portrait of one. As the unworldly doctor, Redford exudes reluctant charm, quickness of wit and biting honesty in equal measures, infusing his Johnson with a presence that only the most dim-witted of viewers could fail to grasp. Johnson’s endearing habit of seeing himself, as the final, unfortunate object of his admiration and unrequited adoration, Hester Thrale (Trudie Styler) often did - an elephant, inspires empathy.

That said, it must be added that Johnson’s pointed wit was often sharpened through criticism, and anything related to the arts or politics was fair game. Although twenty seven year old Johnson had walked a hundred odd miles to London with then twenty one year old David Garrick, who went on to become a renowned actor and impresario of Drury Lane Theatre, Johnson came to despise him for what he viewed as his ‘artifice.’ Similarly, his dislike of the seeming glibness of painter Joshua Reynolds, who Griffin portrays here as a Brian Sewell voiced pontificator who unlike our famed critic it seems, spoke on any number of subjects without first knowing the facts. Griffin is very effective in all of his roles from that of Johnson’s crotchety housekeeper, through King George III, though having seen this fine play with and without Trudie Styler as Hester Thrale, (1741 – 1821) I must say that Styler handles the character’s calculated nuances with a brittleness and self-absorption that any male would find impossible to match.

As Styler rustles onstage in her scarlet taffeta gown, (a favoured material of 18th century ladies of fashion, as it was heard before it was seen) we are instantly aware of Mrs. Thrale’s legendarily predatory nature, which lead her to cultivate Dr. Johnson simply to enable her to fill her Streatham villa with the luminaries of the day via fame by association. The fact that this illuminating play has been drawn from the writings of James Boswell, who’d transcribed actual conversations between Johnson and many other people, himself included, and his journal of his travels with Johnson through the Hebrides, rather than Mrs. Thrale’s earlier, Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson (1786), speaks volumes.

Designer Tim Shortall’s setting for this play is apt, especially for a man who had little of material consequence in life prior to the 1755 publishing of his famous Dictionary. A much used leather bound arm chair for the Dr. and an upright wooden one for his house-guests cum pupils, is backed by his most loved possession of all – books. A round wooden table, intermittently populated by cups of his favourite drink – tea and the action is framed with an oriental rugged setting for the everyday world of the man and his companions, an illusion enhanced by Karen Large’s informed costume consultation.

Just as the play is the thing in the case of those viewing it, for Johnson, conversation, in good company was the meat and drink which kept his considerable intellect and wit fed and flourishing. Having seen this absorbing production twice I can only conclude that said conversations between these two men of the Enlightenment still have the power to grip, entertain and enlighten, two times over.

But as Johnson himself was wont to say:
“Characters should never be given by an historian, unless he knew the people whom he describes, or copies from those who knew them.”

Ian Redford (Samuel Johnson) and Trudie Styler (Hester Thrale) in A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson (Credit - Bob Workman)
Arts Theatre London, 6-7 Great Newport Street, London WC2H 7JB
020 7907 7092,


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