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The Real Thing

by on 5 October 2017

Loving or Losing?

The Real Thing

by Tom Stoppard

Co-Production by RTK, Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre

at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 14th October

Review by Mark Aspen

Is it …?  Everyone who has been in love, or thought they might be in love, asks themselves, “is it the Real Thing?”.   But in Tom Stoppard’s densely interwoven play, The Real Thing, the question is extended to ask, might it be …, or even, could it be …?   With typical intellectual gymnastics, Stoppard writes about belonging and betrayal, about jealousy and forgiveness; but with atypical humanity he writes about the agonies caused by infidelity.  However, he extends the question further to ask about the Real Thing in writing, in music, in politics, as a metaphor for the lives of the characters of the play.  It is a theatrical riddle, constantly keeping us guessing.

The Real Thing has been viewed as a coded autobiography, albeit a somewhat uncomplimentary exposé.  It concerns Henry, a skilled playwright, who is so enthralled by his lover Annie that he finds that he cannot write meaningfully about love.  Annie is an actress for whom he has left his wife Charlotte.   Annie divorces her husband Max and marries Henry.

However, at the play’s opening Stoppard teases us with a scene in which Max and Charlotte appear to be married and Max accuses her of adultery.  We then discover that this is a play within a play.  It is Henry’s play House of Cards.  There are two other plays within the play that Stoppard uses to create the hall of mirrors in which we remain unsure what is fiction and what is the Real Thing.  Is Annie rehearsing a production of Tis Pity She’s A Whore up in Glasgow, or is she having an affair with Billy, a fellow actor, on the Glasgow train?   Is Annie having an unwelcome discussion with a fan on a train, or is she acting in a play about Brodie, a resentful anarchist and convicted arsonist, whom Annie is championing as an ill-judged political cause?  Adding to the smoke and mirrors, Henry has been coerced by Annie into ghost writing Brodie’s play.

Laurence Fox (Max), Flora Spencer-Longhurst (Annie) in The Real Thing_01-20170906-285-Edit

These artful games could be Ayckbourn-esque parlour pastimes, but in Stoppard’s hands there is a subtle development of the drama into an erudite examination of emotions, but with a deep understanding of the impact of loss and of the value of lasting love.

Designer Jonathan Fensom’s set reflects Henry’s personality.  His home is depicted as without any lived-in feel, although it speaks loudly of the stylistic aspirations of the 1970s (the play premiered in 1982) all G-plan, Ercol and Trimphone.  However, the costumes seem more Wilson era than the power-dressing early Thatcher years.

Even without the power-dressing, the power of the production comes from Flora Spencer-Longhurst, whose freewheeling flirting Annie, one moment kittenish sensuality, the next misplaced political zeal.   Spencer-Longhurst has vivacity and a vigour that lifts the pace, although sometimes at the expense of over-stating the role.

The opposite can be said of Laurence Fox, in the lead role as Henry, who seems to be very much under-stating the role.  Maybe it is just his affecting a plummy voice for Henry, but at first I found Fox’s dictation unclear.  Henry is a sardonic, laid-back, cynic, which suggests a languid delivery, but then again the quick-fire intellectual aerobatics and scintillating wit of Henry’s penetrating dialogue implies a delivery with more zing.  Maybe this is the acting equivalent of too posh to push.

There is a nice minute detail that says something about Henry.  In the first half he is wearing odd socks (and no shoes).  He is a cerebral eccentric after all.  In the second half his socks match.  But now everyone is provoking everyone else, and emotionally things are getting more like the Real Thing.  Now there comes out a deep passion of Henry’s; for the English language.  In his articulate defence of his craft, “Writers aren’t sacred: words are” there is for him a certain knowledge of one Real Thing.   He uses the cricket bat analogy.  A cricket bat is not a lump of wood, but a skilfully crafted instrument that makes the ball spring forth.  Thus the writer sends words to the boundaries of their world.  Alas for Henry, he does not have that certain knowledge of the Real Thing that matters to him, finding a love that endures.   His wives are not cricket balls: they have wills of their own.

Henry’s first wife Charlotte is more rational and realistic.  Rebecca Johnson portrays her as adult in her approach, but frustrated in her emotions.  In the second half she inclines towards cynicism, as she admits having a number of affairs when they were married, and then goes on to explain that he should have taken his affair with Annie less seriously.

Their daughter seventeen year-old Debbie has clearly inherited the cynicism of her parents, the pragmatism of Henry and the gift with language of Henry.  Her radical views on marriage shocks both of them, but then she is going off on a gap-year adventure to Australia, no doubt to try to find the Real Thing.   Venice Van Someren gives a brightly pitched performance as the devil-may-care Debbie.

Annie’s ex, Max, is an accepting straightforward man, lost in events just out of his control.  Adam Jackson-Smith plays the character in a nicely nuanced way.  As the fictitious Max the architect in the opening play-within a play, he exhibits all the verbal dexterity of Henry, his creator, but as the real life Max the actor facing the reality of his wife’s adultery, he cannot find the words and is devastated.   Jackson-Smith differentiates the two Maxes with great subtlety.

Annie’s diversions, Billy and Brodie, are both well characterised: Billy, the enthusiastic eager young actor, by Kit Young and the crass coarse convict Brodie by Santino Smith. They are strongly played as characters in their own right, as well as bright foils to Spencer-Longhurst’s spirited Annie.

As the play ends Max phones to announce his engagement.  Henry offers his congratulations, “I’m delighted.  Isn’t love wonderful”, as he leaves the phone dangling and runs off to the bedroom with Annie.

Max may have found the Real Thing, but has Henry?  Henry at the beginning of the play says, “Loving and being loved is very unliterary.  It’s happiness expressed in banality and lust”.  By the end he says, “It’s no trick loving somebody at their best.  Love is loving them at their worst”.

In the course of the play, Henry may have found the Real Thing in writing, in music, and in politics, but in love does the Real Thing remain elusive?

Mark Aspen

October 2017

Photography by Edmond Terakopian

From → Drama, Reviews

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