Lets imagine that the birth of the cinema happened by accident in a Jewish village in Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century and we have the basis for Travelling Light.
The story revolves around Moti Mendi (Damien Molony) returning home after the death of his father and was fascinated by the cinematography equipment he found waiting for him. Timber merchant Jacob (Antony Sher) becomes so engrossed in the films, he literally bank rolls Moti to produce more. All the while Moti is learning so much from Jacob, the villagers and Anna (Lauren O’Neil) who he was falling in love with, that he leaves for Hollywood and becomes a leading film maker in the 1930’s.
This is a National Theatre production in which Nicholas Wright’s play seamlessly transports us from America to Eastern Europe and back as Moti (the elder is played by Paul Jesson) tells us his life story. A lot of the story is humorous and the scenes where the villagers help making a movie and give their verdict on a production are a delight. But the real star is set designer Bob Crowley, who has developed a set, which not only captures the period in Eastern Europe, also doubles as a Hollywood film set with ease. The shanty town backdrop, propped up and seeming to run off in to the distance behind is something to behold in itself. While Crowley has incorporated areas of the set to act as screens while the movies are played, this leaves the flat screen monitors showing the same movies in the auditorium totally out of kilter with the rest of the production.
However Director Nicholas Hytner allows Antony Sher as Jacob to steal too many scenes away from the plots main focus, Moti telling us his story. Had the production been about Jacob this would have worked, but he is a supporting role in the story who becomes the main focus on too many occasions. Also there is no getting away from expecting the cast could break out in a song or two from Fiddler of the Roof or Yentl at any second, due to the location and settings of the story.
While this is, in the main, a delightful piece of theatre, the play falls short of its full potential with the twist at the end just being too much to accept by way of tying up loose ends.