FringeReview UK 2017
Stephen Unwin directs this revival of Stoppard’s The Real Thing featuring Jonathan Fensom’s elegant, unfussy design. Tim Mascall’s lighting does intimacy and glare. We’re bombarded with retro pop (even for 1982) as Henry’s tastes conflict with a new lover’s classical ones in John Leonard’s sound design.
The Real Thing has been hailed as Tom Stoppard’s most emotionally engaged play; it’s certainly one of his most revived. Dating from 1982, it returns after five years to Theatre Royal Brighton in a production from Theatre Royal Bath, Cambridge Arts Theatre and Rose Theatre Kingston with Laurence Fox as playwright Henry leading a cast directed by Stephen Unwin.
This is a play where how the cast finds an extra resonance in Stoppard’s words will determine whether you feel for them. Stoppard gives Henry whole tracts to speak, and Fox is sovereign here in a part he makes his own: but he doesn’t neglect to play up Henry’s brittle, acerbic arrogance, the snappy retorts that can make a desert of love. The burden’s on the two female leads – Rebecca Johnson’s Charlotte, and Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Annie – to follow him.
It’s aided with a smart set as it were, of a variety of doors on a soft heather-coloured wrap, where sofas and even train seats shoot on and off to Jonathan Fensom’s elegant, unfussy design. Slightly less minimal than the 2012 production here, there’s an unmistakeable touch of luxury. Tim Mascall’s lighting does intimacy and glare. We’re bombarded with retro pop (even for 1982) as Henry’s tastes conflict with a new lover’s classical ones in John Leonard’s sound design. Stoppard concluded when reviving the play in the 1990s there was no point in trying to update it, for instance replacing LP vinyl with CDs: some details are of their time, but love he concludes is perennial. Certainly thirty-five years have done nothing to dim what seem now like snap-chat responses and the velocity of sexting. Its brittleness, though recalling Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist for instance, is certainly very Seventies, but it’s even more resonant now.
In fact Hampton’s play pulls the same stunt in 1970 as here. The first scene where Adam Jackson-Smith’s Max discovers Spencer-Longhurst’s infidelity because she never took her passport, is in fact – you’ll see for yourself. At least the protagonist doesn’t accidentally shoot himself as with The Philanthropist, and (spoiler alert!) no-one’s killed in a play that needs to avoid sensationalism unless bubbled up in theatre rehearsals. Hence Spencer-Longhurst’s actor character Annie is later in Glasgow for Ford’s 1633 play Tis Pity She’s a Whore centring on brother-sister incest. Incestuously, Kit Young’s Billy playing opposite Annie predictably falls for her. Spencer-Longhurst is meant to be older than Billy and in charge, though Spencer-Longhurst comes across here as appealingly and vocally youthful, an ardent idealist in contrast with Charlotte, Henry’s wife at the start, who’s quite up for some post-divorce sex (Henry sadly is an idealist too) just when Annie’s entertaining her on-stage brother.
We’re hurled into a dinner party with Annie and Max, and Charlotte sniping at husband Henry whose brittle denunciations of a pet cause of Annie’s form the unpleasant apex of his prejudice. Brodie is a soldier who set fire to the cenotaph in a confused protest at the very nuclear weapons he was protecting: he’s jailed. Annie’s tirelessly campaigning for his release. He’s trying to write a play. Henry and others agree he can’t write and Annie wants Henry to ghost it. Yet when it’s clear she and Henry are having an affair and her assignations conflicts with some do-Brodie-gooding, she retorts just to Henry ‘Let him rot.’ It presages her final act towards Brodie whom she does indeed spring, or was it as the later-appearing Brodie claims, prison cutbacks from monies diverted to nuclear weapons?
Henry’s hypocrisy incidentally lies in those LPs. He feels he has to mimic a more classical taste for his appearance on Desert Island Discs (Stoppard himself only maanged to appear there three years later!). It’s Annie who wants classical, so Henry accuses Bach of stealing from Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’… Fox still mints this one freshly.
Charlotte’s worldliness contrasts with Annie’s passionate idealism – so we see why Henry’s drawn to her. Johnson’s Charlotte begins stridently throughout much of the first act, too much perhaps even for Stoppard’s text; but later on richly modulates. She’s then more rounded: sexy, playful, prepared to enjoy a fling with her ex now married to Annie. By then we’ve seen the sexually precocious daughter Debbie, Venice Van Someren’s sparky delivery of sexual fixations: all school subjects are sex except biology, though losing her virginity in the jodhpur room to the Latin master was just – biology. Not the kind of encounter we’d tolerate now. Van Someren’s appealing performance is one of the things lifting the second half above the first.
Stoppard stipulates the bric-a-brac of Henry and Annie’s first moving-in where she complains memorably ‘the honeymoon is over. Fifteen days and fuckless to bye-byes.’ Henry’s of course obsessively writing screen adaptations to pay alimony, and only a middling play. The set though looks as plush as ever. The gradual adjustment that pushes Annie is a tad blunted scenically but Spencer-Longhurst’s spirited actor, both passionate and thwarted, desirous of desire and susceptible to flattery, recalls the sheer playfulness of the role’s creator, Felicity Kendall. Spencer-Longhurst is less kittenish, more earnest with a glint of teeth. She’s also good at warm exasperation, a fundamental honesty pushed too far.
Santino Smith’s Brodie must be the most ungrateful part Stoppard’s created for an actor, wheeled on with the early 1980s TV towards the very end, to be knocked down after making one or two good points (Stoppard can’t permit inarticulate characters) and one feels dealt with harshly. Smith makes a good fist of a Scottish stereotype. Young’s Billy is allowed more scope, even if it’s to be as it were, young. Jackson-Smith’s major appearances, early on, are resonantly taken, believable, and – another actor stereotype – suitably lachrymose.
Above all though it’s Fox’s brittle but vulnerable Henry who carries this production to some distinction. Bounding in Henry’s self-regarding energy, Fox manages to convey his irritating persona and what its brittleness shrouds: a passionate romanticism. ‘I can’t find a part of myself where you’re not important… I can’t cope with more than one moral system at a time.’ It’s a great declaration though Henry’s ignoring Annie earlier when she flashes her nakedness at him suggests dramatic ironies Stoppard perhaps doesn’t resolve. Certainly the last few scenes set up surprises, and it’s beyond temptation to quote Henry’s line: ‘No hard feelings? What does he mean. If it wasn’t for me, he wouldn’t be engaged now.’
To luxuriate in a witty play with valiant emotional gambits, you’ll have to see The Real Thing for yourself. It’s infinitely more stimulating than many popular comedies, and though it doesn’t quite ache as it should, Fox bestrides this production like a hopeful monster who’s got lucky. He’s irresistible, and especially in the second half, enjoys the support of an energised cast. Do see this.