Writer: Tom Stoppard
Director: Stephen Unwin
Reviewer: Claire Hayes
Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing dazzled when it was first produced in 1982, both for the intelligence and precision of his writing and the performances of Felicity Kendal and Roger Rees in the leading roles. Thought to be one of his most autobiographical plays, its themes of marital infidelity and the pursuit of enduring love are so universal that, today more than 30 years later, they should surely still resonate.
And, against an evocative soundtrack of vintage chart hits, Stoppard’s wit and wisdom do emerge as sharply observed as ever, as life and art become inextricably interwoven. In a play penned by her husband Henry (Laurence Fox), the foremost writer of his generation, Charlotte (Rebecca Johnson) is portraying a woman trapped in a failing marriage. Her on-stage partner Max (Adam Jackson-Smith) suspects her of being unfaithful, yet it is Max’s wife Annie (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) who is embroiled in a real-life affair with Henry.
As always, this is a polished production from Theatre Royal Bath, in conjunction with Cambridge Arts Theatre and Rose Theatre Kingston, incorporating Jonathan Fensom’s sleek and minimalist design. What a pity then, that – despite the laughter induced by Stoppard’s clever lines – it misfires, thanks to an uneven overall performance. Fox’s Henry most noticeably lacks the clarity and conviction of delivery that his central character demands, especially in the early scenes.
Although he does show some measure of Henry’s progression from the detached observer in the first Act to desperate cuckold in the Second, it seems a puzzling directorial decision from Stephen Unwin that an actor of Fox’s stature should portray Henry in this underpowered way. While the Second Act is an improvement, this still drains energy from a production that consequently achieves little variety of pace. It distracts attention from other excellent performances, particularly by Spencer-Longhurst and Jackson-Smith, as well as recent RADA graduate Kit Young in the cameo role of Billy.
Although it doesn’t feel as tender and moving as it should, there’s still some satisfaction to be gained, as The Real Thing’s clever construction gradually reveals itself. When Annie decides to perform in a play written by her pet cause Brodie (Santino Smith), an unjustly imprisoned soldier, Henry’s comparison of the writing process with the skillful creation of a cricket bat is compelling.
Henry’s original play becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that echoes through the years, with honesty and trust being repeatedly eroded. Is lasting love ever achievable or simply an unattainable ideal pursued through a succession of relationships? Though the authentically detailed late 20th Century vinyl LPs and manual typewriter pin this play to the time of its first staging, it’s never in danger of feeling dated.
While Stoppard’s play is eminently watchable and emerges as a modern classic, this production sadly misses the mark. It’s early in the run and there’s still time and room for improvement, but it can’t yet be described as the real thing.
Runs until 30 September 2017 | Image: Edmond Terakopian