Wednesday 24 January 2018

Review: 'Yr. Obedient Servant, Samuel Johnson’

Long time readers of this blog (ie: myself) may very well know the fondness I have for analysing stage, screen and novelised Johnsons. 

One of my favourites was Ian Redford’s rendition of him in one of my earliest encounters with Dr Johnson’s House, a performance of ‘A Dish of Tea with Samuel Johnson’. Recently the house invited another stage Johnson to potter and chat and be his entertaining self in a stage reading of 'Yr. Obedient Servant, Samuel Johnson’ by Kay Eldredge. 

I had booked this play months ago, without really seeing what it was. It was only this morning when I looked at it closely that I realised my Samuel Johnson for the night would be Matthew Kelly. I was a little surprised. My main memories of him are as an obliging host on ‘Stars in their Eyes’, congratulating a man (who wasn’t Chris de Burgh) on being almost Chris de Burgh. I was expecting a surreal evening.

Turns out, I was wrong about Matthew Kelly. He played a nuanced, multifaceted Johnson in a broad Midlands accent, visibly ageing as the performance progressed. The Johnson presented is a Johnson of zingers, not always reaching for the obvious choices (some of them come from Boswell’s Journal, the Rambler Essays and 'Taxation no Tyranny') but with plenty warm and quotable lines. 

There were many funny lines, which, given smart comic timing, were amusing even to those who knew them already. The comedy was often mixed with tragedy. There were times when Johnsons jokes soured into sadness before bouncing back into humour again. 

There was one particular quote which shocked me. A woman claims to be consistently happy, and Johnson say he finds impossible because "the woman is ugly and sickly, and foolish and poor; and would it not make a man hang himself to hear such a creature say it was happy?” The line starts humorously but Johnson goes too far with it and becomes nasty. This nastiness was only a small element to the performance, but it was there and it was interesting.

 It’s also interesting that how the spines of the play were Johnson’s relationships with his wife, Tetty and with Hester Thrale. Reading ‘Wits and Wives’ by Kate Chisholm, I have been rethinking Johnson’s relationships with these women, and the one with Tetty is presented as warmly irascible - and it made sense that Kelly’s Johnson had a deep and abiding grief for her. 

Samuel Johnson as presented in 'Yr. Obedient Servant, Samuel Johnson’ is a much more sexual being than expected. He pines for Tetty’s sex as she gets sicker, and misses her for that when she is gone. He finds he can’t go back stage because the half-naked actresses excite him too much. I have read about his sex drive, many of his contemporaries made fleeting comment to it, but to have those elements put in the spotlight was a surprise.

Imaginary Boswell, Tetty, Garrick, Earl of Chesterfield all turn up but I was missing my pal Oliver Goldsmith. He was alluded to, Johnson speaks one of Goldy’s lines as his own. Kit Smart is also alluded to, but again Johnson gets to attribute the line to himself. Even Hodge turned up with a nice little bit of mime that almost made me see the cat… we also got the lovely bit where he told us that Hodge was not his favourite cat, but adds that he's lovely moggy nonetheless - so that he didn't hurt Hodge's feelings.

I’d have liked a little more variety - the lines were put together to create a slightly repetitive rhythm, a problem the Staffordshire accent which its rising cadences did not help. 

It was less a blockbusting performance than ‘A Dish of Tea with Samuel Johnson’, and Ian Redford’s Johnson is still my favourite of all the screen, stage and novel Johnsons, but 'Yr. Obedient Servant, Samuel Johnson’ was a good evening’s entertainment and Matthew Kelly’s Johnson a good one to put in the memory bank.

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