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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Real Thing

Words . . . They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they're no good any more . . . I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead. — Henry
The Real Thing
Hattie Morahan as Annie and Toby Stephens as Henry (Photo: Johan Persson)
I do wonder how much expectation has to do with theatrical criticism. Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing was my favourite play of the late 1990s and so my expectation of seeing Toby Stephens and Hattie Morahan recreate the roles of Henry and Annie I had seen from Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle was high.

I wondered how much the difference in venue had to do with the final play. In the intimate Donmar, one is very close to the action but in the Old Vic, an artificial rectangular picture frame with a wide white border has been laid across the proscenium arch creating a box set playing area at odds with the original stage and which serves to distance the audience, a continual reminder that this is a stage and not real life. The individual houses are created by sliding panels which open and close with each new venue to expose a bookcase or close to offer minimalist design, again artificial.

It may also be that Toby Stephens' writer Henry is less sympathetic, maybe even more like what Tom Stoppard intended his emotionally unintelligent, ironically humorous writer to be than the more likeable Dillane. Maybe the jokes are less funny on hearing them for the second time. Maybe going through separation and divorce in the 1990s, the theme of infidelity and marital rift affected me more then.

The play obviously has some biographical detail from Stoppard's own marriage and subsequent affairs and although his first wife was a medical doctor, the playwright has been linked with actresses. What The Real Thing does do is to dissect a relationship once the thrilling glue of early sexual attraction has worn off and two different people's ways of handling this. Henry with high taste in literature has low taste in music, and records from Herman and His Hermits to the Righteous Brothers, punctuate the play. But it is Annie asking Henry to help the political prisoner wannabe writer to re-craft his terrible play that exposes her lack of literary taste and Henry's reluctance to make sacrifices for her, at least not literary ones.

Toby Stephens at the end is moving as the writer who finally realises what he has lost when Annie has an affair with Billy (Tom Austen) who is playing her brother in Tis Pity She's a Whore. Hattie Morahan too is a very attractive actress with such a range of delightful expression but as Annie fails to see the crass element within the novelty of the new, the writing of the ex-soldier Brodie (Jordan Young) or the passing attraction of the younger, fellow thespian (Tom Austen). Fenella Woolgar playing Henry's first actress wife Charlotte, is a fabulous comedienne and her opening double entendre scene sparkles with Stoppard's trickery.

While The Real Thing may be more accessible Stoppard, what I love about Tom Stoppard is the sheer erudition of plays like Arcadia, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Coast of Utopia. However many seeing Anna Mackmin's production, and The Real Thing for the first time, will marvel at Stoppard's choice of words and the ending emotional emptiness of this play as well as the cracking performances.

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The Real Thing
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Anna Mackmin

Starring: Hattie Morahan, Toby Stephens, Fenella Woolgar, Barnaby Kay
With: Tom Austen, Louise Calf, Jordan Young
Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting: Hugh Vanstone
Sound: Simon Baker for Autograph
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office:
Booking at the Old Vic until 5th June 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd April 2010 performance at the Old Vic, Waterloo Road London SE1 8NB (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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