Monday, April 22

The Marriage Of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein – Jermyn Street Theatre

Everything about Edward Einhorn’s “The Marriage of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein” is an enigma. Is it comedy, tragedy, tragi-comedy? Farce?  All of the above?  It’s a play within a play within a play in which everyone (audience included) has been invited to the wedding of Gertrude and Alice. The circles in which the two literary superstars of their time moved means that their guest list includes those who are regulars at their Paris salon. There is Picasso (along with one of his wives and two of his mistresses), T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and the less-than-welcome Ernest Hemingway who turns up uninvited with his wife and a matador pal. With such exalted company, the conversation naturally revolves about the nature of art, genius, fame, sex and love. Love is certainly the central theme of the play, with Stein and Toklas’s relationship the only solid connection that endures. Even that though is a tragedy, as Picasso says, as one must inevitably eventually die, leaving the other bereft. Such is life.

The company of four highly talented performers switch characters with ease. Einhorn avoids confusion for the audience in these rapid changes by thankfully announcing who they are. Natasha Byrne’s Stein is a figure comfortable in her status of genius and happy to give herself the role of deciding who else should be given that title. Byrne gives her character an element of smugness that feels perfectly pitched. Alyssa Simon (Toklas) is a more fluttery figure, down to earth, she knits, keeps house, and while polar opposites, is also clearly Stein’s rock and soulmate. Mark Huckett makes a marvellous drunk Hemingway, all raging annoyance at not being invited to the wedding and proclaiming what he considered to be the life-affirming joy of the bullfight. Picasso is an elusive figure, Kelly Burke presenting him as a revolutionary artist who seems to wallow in existential angst and nihilism. While all four cast members play multiple roles, Burke in particular performs numerous characters, contorting her body to take on the characteristics of each without missing a beat.  Einhorn’s direction takes all these disparate characters and while he flirts with farce and breaking the fourth wall, he never pushes things too far, ensuring that the emotional beats are not lost.

Machiko Weston’s set, a backdrop of picture frames that provide scene title captions and echo the Stein-Toklas couple’s love of art, is simple and uncluttered but highly effective. The transformation into a Jewish wedding scene, with the traditional canopy, was cleverly produced.

As Stein and Toklas say at the outset, they are effectively each other, evidenced by Stein having written Toklas’s “autobiography” in 1933. The book was a bestseller and brought Stein wider literary recognition, without which it’s unlikely this play would have been written.

The Marriage Of Alice B Toklas By Gertrude Stein plays at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 16th April.  Tickets are on sale from:

Reviewer: Carole Gordon

Reviewed: 25th March 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★