You never know quite what to expect from a new play by writer and director Anthony Neilson, master of the surreal and the unsettling. What I hadn't anticipated, however, was a comedy quite as broad and laugh-aloud funny as Unreachable.
It stars Matt Smith, of Doctor Who fame, as a brilliant but tormented film director who has won the Palme D'Or but is now suffering from some kind of film-maker's block as he seeks for the perfect quality of light with which to endow his new movie Child of Ashes, a dystopian drama ten years in the dreaming.
His monstrous ego is pampered and preened by his producer Anastasia (Amanda Drew) willing to sacrifice anything to get the movie made, and assisted by the lighting cameraman Carl (Richard Pyros) who is secretly both having an affair with Anastasia and harbouring ambitions to replace Maxim.
So far so straight-forward. Except it's not. Neilson's creative method is to use rehearsals as a development process, producing a script only at the very last minute – and drawing on the hearts and minds of the actors to unearth his raw material. What we see on the Royal Court stage is a meta-critique of the process of creation itself, played on Chloe Lamford's bare-bones set, with each prop labelled as to its function, each character is dressed in black and white and every scene is announced by a disembodied voice.
The action, as it unfolds, has a kind of bravura swagger. It's full of scalpel sharp lines – "If Leonardo Da Vinci had a producer, the Mona Lisa would have been painted on plywood" Maxim protests at one point – and superbly observed physical comedy (including a bizarre scene of simulated sex and a slapstick one in which Smith attempts to lift a suitcase containing "my whole life.")
Peering out from beneath the mayhem, is Tamara Lawrance's extraordinary performance as Natasha, an actress who can summon deeply felt emotion at will, but who sees it only as her job, and refuses to accept that it must spring from real pain. Neilson has fun with the collision between her matter-of-fact groundedness and Maxim's airy demands, and Lawrance bravely reveals exactly what the art of acting means.
That theme – of the collision between the real and the fictional, between the monstrous egotism of art as it strives for unreachable verities and the more workaday truths of life – seems to be the play's reason for being. Yet it is almost overbalanced by a joyous performance from Jonjo O'Neill as the monstrous Ivan – known as the Brute – the actor whom Maxim recruits to sabotage the movie, and who blusters around the stage like a cross between a Shakespearean blaggard and Klaus Kinski, shouting about "this cathedral to mediocrity" and reducing both the audience and his fellow players to helpless laughter by his monstrous boasts. "After accidentally killing a penguin, I sat for two days on her egg."
His mood-changing courtship of the movie's watchful money-woman – a deaf character played with enchanting warmth by deaf actress Genevieve Barr - is a wonder. But the play's sudden swerve from such energetic humour into a more sombre, upsetting close feels unearned. It is beautifully worked and wonderfully staged, but more predictable and less convincing than anything that has gone before.
Still, the journey to that point is an immense pleasure and the performances are uniformly excellent. Smith isn't taken far out of his comfort zone by the neurotic, hyperactive and self-absorbed Maxim, but minute to minute he shows what a fine and sensitive actor he is.
Unreachable runs at the Royal Court until 6 August 2016.