You have to have a modicum of sympathy for actors and playwrights. They spend their entire careers working with make-believe. How on earth can they ever discern The Real Thing?
Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, his 1982 witty and cleverly constructed play about artifice, adultery and acting, now playing at Theatre Royal Bath, is fictional but there is probably more of the writer in every line than perhaps he ever intended.
Dramatists are always urged to write about what they know. Here is a story about Henry, a middle-aged playwright, who is conducting an affair with Annie, the wife of his leading man, starring opposite his own wife, in his latest play.
It opens with a play within a play – although you don’t realise this until scene two. On stage is a drunken husband who is trying to construct a house of cards. In walks his wife, supposedly back from a business trip to Switzerland.
There ensues a hilarious exchange of verbal parries as the drunk confronts his wife over her adultery before she exits, admonished and appalled at being found out.
The ‘husband and wife’ are actors Max and Charlotte. In the real world neither are aware that Henry is having an affair with Annie, Max’s wife.
When the shit hits the fan most of the group seem remarkably relaxed by the revelation – with the exception of the hapless Max who was in pieces.
In-between soothing Henry’s ego (usually by flashing her pert young body) Annie, herself an actress, grapples with Strindberg and backs a protest to free a Scots soldier accused of desecrating a war memorial.
I’m never quite sure why Stoppard included this last strand unless it was to have some element of real life intruding into the foursome’s insular, educated, and arty bubble of existence.
What comes shining through is the sheer arrogance of Henry/Stoppard who is ever ready to pick up someone’s grammatical error or to assert his intellectual superiority over the masses.
Laurence Fox, while engaging as the emotionally sterile Henry, doesn’t have the killer instinct. He needs more swagger and conceit, boasting the sort of uber confidence that comes from being assured of your own outstanding ability.
Henry is pedantic, facetious and patronising yet, for all his brilliant wordplay and command of the English language, he struggles to display any genuine feelings. He can talk the talk but fails spectacularly to display any affection.
You have to wonder what the younger Annie (played by Stoppard’s own actress lover, Felicity Kendel, in the original) sees in him unless it is step up the career ladder.
There are very few glimpses of Henry the man. We get a cursory insight with his choice of music. He’s been invited onto Desert Island Discs and is struggling to come up with eight watershed pieces of music.
The BBC are expecting, for a man of his intellectual stature, the classics, a bit of Bach perhaps. But what he really enjoys is Wayne Fontana’s Um, Um, Um, Um, or a bit of Neil Sedaka (and, I don’t know if they were director, Stephen Unwin’s choices, but there are some great tracks playing throughout the production).
There’s only one very brief moment when Henry’s veneer cracks and it seems intrusive and awkward.
Flitting around the remarkable Henry are two women who are both under-written by Stoppard, and who are there to feed his ego and no more.
Certainly Henry contemptuously dismisses any thoughts and ideas they may have as being secondary to his own self-confessed brilliance.
Cuckolded wife Charlotte (Rebecca Johnson getting as much as she can out of the part) seems to bounce back remarkably well on discovering her husband’s midlife crisis while Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Annie enjoys the benefits of being an actress in a louche profession.
She claims to love Henry but is, likewise, unable to separate sex and love, and being in love from acting the lover.
Whether infidelity can ever be surmounted or excused, whether any marriage, even between a couple living a fantasy existence can survive, is another matter. Certainly Tom Stoppard has had three runs up the aisle.
Unwin presents The Real Thing in its original form, set in the early ’80s. Attitudes and behaviour have changed since then but the artifice enjoyed by people in the arts probably hasn’t much at all.
It’s directed with a real lightness of touch, the dialogue coming in torrents but elegantly choreographed.
The Real Thing is still razor-sharp, scintillating and quick-witted but there are moments when you wish Henry would just shut-up and admit that he’s human and fallible.
Or, better still, just let his guard down and physically interact with those he professes to love.
The Real Thing is playing at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday.
Rose Theatre Kingston, October 3 – 14
Malvern Festival Theatre, October 16 – 21
Edinburgh King’s Theatre, October 24 – 28
Brighton Theatre Royal, October 30 – November 4
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, November 6 – 11.
Artifice, adultery and acting. Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play, The Real Thing, is just as razor-sharp and witty in this scintillating revival now touring.