Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 16 April 2022
With typical wit, the doughty little Jermyn has captured an intellectual-farcical oddity from New York, complete with author-director and star. Tom Littler signed them up for 2020, with obvious results, but lured them back on the far side of theatre’s Covidgeddon. Edward Einhorn’s play is a quirky, comic four-hander celebrating (with gentle mockery) the forty-year partnership between Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas.
It depicts a wedding, complete with nips of champagne distributed in the short break in its 90 minutes, long before such same-sex unions were thinkable. It is set within their famous Rue de Fleurus salon, forever a-teem with Stein’s fellow “geniuses”: artists and writers and ex-pat aesthetes of that legendary early- 20c Parisian ferment. Actually, there’s a lot of emphasis on geniuses as a cadre, of which the smilingly obliging Alice knows she is not a member. She is just there to love Stein and “entertain the wives” while the geniuses utter at one another in the other room.
So Picasso (a hilarious Kelly Burke) is in and out all day, representing himself or a herd of mistresses and models, and plays celebrant at the women’s (rather touching) Jewish wedding. Ernest Hemingway (Mark Huckett, making the most of a solid furious masculinity) stomps about uncomprehending in this female landscape of monogamous devotion. A host of others – guests, Stein’s brother, TS Eliot, James Joyce – flit in and out dextrously courtesy of Burke and Huckett.
At the heart of it, sometimes switching roles with firm meta-theatre signaling, is Natasha Byrne as a formidable, centred Stein with all that philosopher- poet’s assurance, and Alyssa Simon, who played the role in the US, is her sweet Alice. It is often very funny – you’ll love the wedding night sex scene, ladies – though at times I wondered if the whimsy could hold up, and whether the aesthetes; pretension was given too free a rein.
But it does hold, for 90 highly enjoyable minutes . You get a real sense of that bohemian creative ferment, both absurd and enlighteningly necessary as the West recoiled and reconsidered between the wars. You feel the shadows over it too, and the compromises. Shafts of sudden epigrammatic truth sparkle suddenly, and it is a hymn to solid love. Hemingway is reproached for his ignorance of that – “All you know is tortured love and unadulterated lust”. For Stein and Toklas unity is total, and homely. “I am my beloved and my beloved is me”.
Indeed at Stein’s abrupt exit – she died first – Alyssa Simon is heartbreaking: a simple devoted non-genius, bereaved and robbed of inheritance by Stein’s family , and of course never legally a wife. Its always the streak of sadness that gives comedy its truth.
Box office jermynstreettheatre.co.uk. To 16 April
Some socially distanced performances.
‘A quirky, comic four-hander celebrating a 40-year partnership’: @lib_thinks on The Marriage of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein at @JSTheatre til 16 Apr. ★★★★ #JSTMarriage #newwriting #OffWestEnd #theatrereviews