“I enjoy verbal gymnastics and challenging parts,” actor Greg Hicks points out, “but Dinner With Groucho is so leftfield that it requires a volatile mental energy that keeps you on your feet the whole way through.”
Opening this week at Oxford Playhouse, Frank McGuinness‘ brand new play, performed by b*spoke theatre company is based on the meeting of famous poet TS Eliot and American comedian Groucho Marx in 1964.
“I knew the part would be a massive undertaking but it’s mercifully short, extremely fast and enormously verbal”
And while the dinner in question was a disaster, the event itself made such an impression on McGuinness that he’s transformed the premise into a fantasy realism where the two men, hosted by the enigmatic Ingrid Craigie, philosophise, reminisce and reflect on their infamous lives.
Greg Hicks, who plays TS Eliot, is already in Oxford rehearsing with b*spoke theatre company when we speak, and delighted with the cut and thrust of the sparring script.
“It’s fun but incredibly complex. On the one hand you have TS Eliot who is terribly buttoned up and known by his friends as The Undertaker, versus an explosion of Marx’s surreal subversion, and that really talked to me.
“an actor needs to be outwardly entertaining and inwardly revealing”
“Eliot was deeply unhappy, so it’s also about how to navigate that sadness, but it’s mercifully short, extremely fast and enormously verbal,” he laughs, “and there are some wonderfully entertaining riffs.
“So I knew the part would be a massive undertaking but that’s what drives me; that verbal richness, complexity and density is what I enjoy as an actor.”
And yet, despite an impressive CV thick with RSC and Sir Peter Hall plays, awards and accolades (Hicks was nominated for a 2004 Laurence Olivier Theatre Award and won a Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards in 2003), Covid had a big impact on Greg.
“I had stage fright for the first time in my life when we opened in Ireland last month,” he admits. “Ian Bartholomew who plays Groucho Marx could see that I was in trouble and we got through it, but it took two or three performances to find my feet and confidence again.
“I’ve never experienced that before. I don’t know if it was age, the play itself, or Covid that affected me so much but it doesn’t get any easier or more comfortable as you get older.
“But then an actor needs to be outwardly entertaining and inwardly revealing, so that vulnerability is important,” he says before returning to rehearsals, TS Eliot already at the forefront of his mind.
Dinner With Groucho runs at Oxford Playhouse from Wednesday Nov 2 – Saturday Nov 5. https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/dinner-with-groucho