20th Nov, 2017

Theatre Review - 'The Real Thing' at Malvern Theatres

Malvern Editorial 18th Oct, 2017

The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard – Reviewed by Lee Farley.

Malvern Theatres

Oct 17, 2017

A REVIVAL of a play from 1983 inevitably begs the question, ‘Why?’ Why this play, why now, in 2017? What does this play have to say which remains relevant and interesting almost 35 years later?

There are universal themes of love, commitment and illusion, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that theatre, and Britain, has changed so much since Stoppard wrote ‘The Real Thing’, and this production exists merely as a workout for theatre’s heritage.

It’s painfully middle-class London-centric, steeped in clever literary and theatrical references, and centred on characters who all speak in the same cynical, detached, smarty-boots manner.

Tom Stoppard’s play is autobiographical, he admits in an interview in the programme.

The main character, Henry (Laurence Fox) is a successful playwright with an ex-wife, a teenage daughter, and the pressure to write something popular to cover his alimony payments.

He is articulate, witty, dispassionate, analytical, and romantic.

He makes reference to classical literature and pop music.

If gerunds, lacunae, Strindberg, Othello, and The Crystals are your thing, this is the play for you.

We spend much of the production admiring and chuckling at Henry / Stoppard’s way with words, his analogies of cricket, and suspicion of left-wing politics.

The danger here is that the whole play becomes an exercise in ego-massage for the writer (both real and fictional).

The play was written in 1983 and the production chooses not to update it, although the design contains a number of anomalies – Calvin Klein boxers visible over the top of jeans, prominent tattoos, and contemporary fashions clash with the clunky sound of a manual typewriter, a trimphone, and an authentic-looking copy of The Observer.

The set is all 1970s minimalism and reminded me of the toilets at the National Theatre – is this another metatextual theatre reference?

Stephen Unwin’s production plays at a fast-pace throughout, which works when Stoppard’s lengthy speeches require an intellectual energy, but leaves little room for moments of quiet, of truth, of physicality.

The production is words, words, words right from the start and maintains an unvarying rhythm which is exhausting and one-dimensional.

The actors embrace this momentum, but subsequently their characters appear aloof, formal, artificial.

This is a production for minds, not hearts.

As with all of Tom Stoppard’s plays, there are times when his language transcends any production qualms – his complex wordplay creates so many analogies, references, puns, and self-referential comments it’s almost impossible to keep abreast of them all.

This is intellectually rigorous and exciting to listen to, but means any overarching theme or idea is muddled.

“Exclusive rights? That’s not love, it’s colonisation.”

“I believe in mess, tears, pain, self-abasement, nakedness.”

It’s compelling and wonderful to hear Stoppard grappling with the complexities of being in love, the nature of fidelity, and how to define his own feelings, but this may not be enough to sustain you through an unimaginative and outdated staging of this convoluted, phlegmatic play.

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