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The Real Thing (Old Vic 19/4/10) 18 May 2010

Confession time...I was sitting in the theatre, flipping through the pages in the programme when it dawned on me, I had never seen a Tom Stoppard play. It feels as if I had, his name has been synonymous with classic British theatre for decades and I have seen him around town numerous times but I never saw any of his plays, revival or not. And I don't have an answer for how that has come to pass.

Here we have a real classic. Premiering in the West End in 1982 , The Real Thing went on to win the Evening Standard Award for Best Play and subsequently premiered on Broadway in 1984 and won the Tony for Best Play. It would be easy to assume that subsequent productions would have to deal with either keeping in set within the era it was written or make some attempt to update it to reach a more contemporary audience, however what's so wonderful about this play is that it doesn't need either treatment to be relevant or 'contemporary'.

The Real Thing engages the audience from the start, giving us two scenarios which keep us wondering which is the real thing? Back to back we have two scenes with one common element - the same woman is in each and we're left wondering for a while how the two fit - was one or both just a scene from a play written by Toby Stephens (A Dolls House at the Donmar, The Country Wife in the West End, TV- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Cambridge Spies, Film - Die Another Day) playwright character Henry?

Characters collide, home truths are dished out and once the dust settles the play gets a more conventional tone, for a while. We are left with two of the originating characters - Henry and his other half as they navigate through their relationship. Considering how much of the play is essentially a two hander it is never less and captivating. Discussions about what is real ring true, whether it be the truth in relationships and what one needs from their partner or (what I found to be the pinnacle of the night) a conversation about what makes a good play. The basis of that conversation was a discussion about a play by a non playwright, one character thinks its a bad play and the other feels it says what it needs to say which gives it validity. It's that age old argument questioning the concept that there is good and bad art - some think it's simply a matter of taste and effectiveness and others feel its more prescribed than that.

In The Real Thing Stoppard uses a cricket bat to get his point across, explaining the craftsmanship that goes into making a cricket bat separates good bats from bad. A wonderfully crafted bat will elevate a players game where as a bad bat will bring it down. It's a wonderful argument and makes complete sense in context although, to be fair, making a cricket bat does not entirely equal full on creativity but then we could ask if Henry's plays are also indeed, the real thing.

I could run on and on with this 'real thing' concept and I think that's why the play works so well, It's tightly constructed and everything is there for a reason, feeding into the central concepts and thought processes.

Down to specifics - Toby Stephens is very effective as Henry. He's a middle class snob who, I believe, and based on my big ears during the interval, you could sympathise with or simply detest. It's a fine line he has to walk and he does veer a little too much on the negative side for me but it's necessary for the character I guess. As the two women in his life - Fenella Woolgar (Time and the Conways at the National, Motortown at the Royal Court, films Vera Drake, Bright Young Things and Stage Beauty) captures the slightly cynical and funny Charlotte while Hattie Morahan (The City at the Royal Court, Time and the Conways,... some trace of her, Three More Sleepless Nights - all National Theatre) took a while to capture my attention. There was a wonderful moment when I realised that her character had been influenced by Henry through a subtle switch in a conversation. Very subtle and difficult to do so hats off to her. Barnaby Kay (Closer, Man of Mode at the National Theatre, The Herbal Bed in the West End, Dying For It at the Almeida and A Streetcar Named Desire as the Donmar) as Max was wonderful. He brought a very playful, open quality to a character that only appears in the first few scenes of the first act.

The only downside for me was the introduction of additional characters in the final third of the play. I understand why they were there, I felt they were necessary for the development of other characters but a few of them were directly out of stage school and although fine, their lack of experience shown.

I'm no director but I would imagine that directing this play would be a tricky affair. It balances and counter balances so many ideas and character flaws that allowing the production to tip too much in one direction could throw the whole thing off. It's the careful point / counterpoint effect that is believably created and entirely entertaining that makes this a must see, especially if you consider yourself a 'thoughtful' person. I can't imagine anyone looking for a heavy duty storyline full of mystery and suspense to really hook into the magic of Stoppard's writing. If in doubt, give it a try, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Speaking of I was writing this I realised that I had seen a Tom Stoppard play - Rock and Roll in the West End. And surprisingly, I didn't like it. I felt it relied too much on intellectual banter along with political and cultural references that to a point eluded me.That's not the case with The Real Thing. All the preparation you will need is your mind.

The Real Thing
with Tom Austen, Louise Calf, Barnaby Kay, Hattie Morahan, Toby Stephens, Fenella Woolgar, Jordan Young
Director: Anna Mackmin
Designer: Lez Brotherston