The Real Thing

Tue 26th – Sat 30th June 2012

reviews

Tim Bano

at 02:29 on 27th Jun 2012

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Tom Stoppard is often aware of the theatrical space in which his plays are performed. Quite quickly "The Real Thing" shows off its ‘play-within-a-play’ conceit, and it begins to ask questions about reality and scripted reality. In a way, it is proto-TOWIE as the audience is tricked into thinking that something is real when we know perfectly well that it is not.

Henry (Gerald Kyd) is a playwright, he has an affair and his lover is involved with a young political activist. That is about it for plot. The interest comes from themes: Annie (Marianne Oldham) is an actor, Charlotte (Sarah Ball) is an actor, so is Max (Simon Scardifield) and their job is to pretend to be something they are not. But we all do this, especially when trying to attract someone. We present a version of ourselves that is acceptable to a love interest. When they find out more about us then cracks start to appear. So the play makes us ponder what love is – whether it is a compromise, whether it is romantic or faithful or real. The second act discusses more openly different sorts of love: love we have for our children, love in an affair, love as fidelity, love of a cause. Do we do things because we believe in them or because we are trying to look like we do?

The cast tackles this complexity of layers really very well: Kyd is arrogant, superior, intelligent but, later, allows the audience to see some emotion and to see some romantic spirit. Ball gives the character of Charlotte a great strength with her closed-off approach and her sardonic ripostes to her husband’s superiority. At times their voices are a little bit quiet, and the men are quite high-pitched, but there is some real talent especially since some of the cast are playing parts within their parts, and to attempt to be a character who is playing someone else is no mean feat. Simon Scardifield as Max and Adam O’Brian as Billy are particularly good at this.

A squishy leather sofa, a swivel chair, some tables and a desk sit on the stage to create a typical expensive-looking living room. The scene transitions are little acts of ballet in themselves, based around a gently revolving stage and some deft stagehands. The furniture remains the same for each new scene, but reoriented or moved about or turned around. And at the end of every scene a solitary light is left to fade by itself, usually accompanied by music. Much thought and great skill have been put into these elements of the production by director Kate Saxon and their careful choreography is a little reminder that what we are watching is still a (very well-staged) play.

It is the accompanying music that provokes a different level of audience emotion. Universally known songs such as ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’ and ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ swell and fade to begin and end many of the scenes. Music can stir feelings that words cannot: from the Einaudian piano ostinati at the beginning to Procul Harem at the end our senses are affected on a different plane that complement the clever and witty words of the script.

Daughter Debbie (Georgina Leonidas) accuses Henry of writing another play about “infidelity among the architect class”. Stoppard is aware of this danger and avoids it. The play is complex, but it is brilliantly funny. And the production, the directorial decisions and the acting are almost flawless.

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Cheng-Chai Chiang

at 05:12 on 27th Jun 2012

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There is an embedded joke in Tom Stoppard’s title ‘The Real Thing’ whose significance we don’t get till the end of the first scene, when it is revealed that the latter is in fact written by the play’s protagonist Henry, a successful playwright married to an actress, Charlotte, but in love and conducting an affair with her co-star Max’s wife Annie (also an actress). Infidelity is hardly anything to joke about, but Stoppard’s writing is that rare (if not real) thing that manages to pose challenging questions about the nature and limits of love without compromising its comic ingenuity. The English Touring Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse’s revival of this 1982 play is subtly executed with Kate Saxon’s light and unobtrusive directorial touch, allowing Stoppard’s characteristic wit to shine through the actors’ crisp delivery. This befits a play that resists an easy sentimentality in its exploration of intimacy, though it sometimes risks narrowly missing the affective import that inheres even in the funniest of lines.

The acting was uniformly excellent. Gerald Kyd is the undeniable heart of the production as the charismatically eloquent Henry; his performance deftly traces the playwright’s evolving relationship to his penchant for witty observation, which, while initially indexing his initial inability to get jealous over Annie’s onstage intimacies, gradually disintegrates into a residual bulwark against his encroaching doubts about her fidelity. His carefully calibrated study of sexual jealousy when he finally confronts her is more emotionally restrained than I had imagined it when I first read the play, but it is an interesting interpretation (within the context of a play that consistently negotiates the fine line between reality and performance) that allows his emotional turmoil to be discerned in the fault lines of his reserve instead of a more impassioned delivery. Marianne Oldham portrays Annie’s unapologetic attitude towards the demands of love with sympathetic grace; she and Kyd particularly excel in capturing the nuances in the heady beginning of romance, joking with insouciant recklessness about the possibility of being found out while their partners are out of the room, although their handling of the complications thatinevitably arise in the couple’s relationship sometimes suffers from a dip in energy and slightly awkward pacing. Within the supporting cast, Adam O’Brian lends an enlivening presence as Annie’s young co-star Billy with whom the rehearsal of passionate scenes begins to bleed imperceptibly into reality, while Georgina Leonidas delivers a charming turn as Henry and Charlotte’s precocious teenage daughter, achieving just the right mix of intellectual rebellion and understanding affection in delineating the distinction between ‘exclusive love’ and ‘colonization’ for Dad.

The production is not without its shortcomings, however. The seamlessness of the scene transitions is marred by conspicuous stage hands who come onstage before every scene to rearrange the furniture after the rotating set has shifted them into place. There are moments where the delivery of lines felt stilted (e.g. the first scene) or when a scene falls short of its comic impact (e.g. Annie’s final interaction with Brodie). Yet when it hits the right notes, the results are genuinely moving. Near the play’s conclusion, when Henry reverts to his wisecracking self with a Wildean flourish by remarking that ‘to marry one actress is unfortunate, to marry two is simply asking for it’, one can’t help but feel in Kyd’s wryly self-reflexive delivery the intimation of a hard-earned joke, ‘the real thing’ as it were, of which the underside is Henry’s acquisition of ‘self-knowledge through pain’.

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