The Real Thing at the Albery Theatre
David Leveaux's revival of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing was a big success when it opened at the Donmar Warehouse last year but now that it's transferred to the West End's Albery Theatre, in the wake of four Olivier nominations - including Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Director - and en route to Broadway, it promises to become a positively monster hit.
And rightly so. The production may have lost some of the intimacy which the Donmar's much smaller space provided, but it's lost none of its biting wit and pathos. Nor has the move diminished the superb quality of the acting.
Stephen Dillane is astonishingly good as Henry, a famous playwright and self-confessed cultural snob. Though cynical, Henry believes passionately in two things - the sacredness of words and the existence of the 'real thing', true and committed love. He hopes to at last capture the latter by leaving his actress wife (an enjoyably sarcastic Sarah Woodward) and shacking up with his married actress lover Annie (Jennifer Ehle).
But as his relationship with Annie develops and her eye strays once again, Henry's intellectual and emotional detachment, which has always protected him from real pain and entanglement, breaks down and his life begins to resemble one of his cheerless plays.
Dillane is wonderfully languid in the part and has a grand ability for delivering witty one-liners as if they just occurred to him - eyes sparkling and eyebrows arching in whimsy. His Henry, you feel, would be a coup for any dinner partner, especially if he deigned to reprise his good-writing-is-like-a-cricket-bat monologue for the guests. Pure entertainment!
Ehle, meanwhile, is certainly sexy as Annie, making it easy to see why men are willing to go to prison, risk marriages and break hearts - mainly their own - for her. But she doesn't manage to raise the emotional stakes to the same level as Dillane or Nigel Lindsay, who plays her painfully discarded first husband.
Even stand-out, Olivier-nominated performances, though, can't outshine the real sparkle of this play - Stoppard's writing. You can even forgive him the cliched, self-referential decision to set this drama amongst playwrights and actors - why not lawyers or accountants or computer programmers for a change? - because here is a writer who does supreme justice to the sacredness of words.
The Real Thing really is the real thing - top notch theatre. And if Stephen Dillane doesn't win the Olivier, I'll be very disappointed.
The following review dates from The Real Thing's original run at the Donmar Warehouse in June 1999.
If there is one thing you learn from Tom Stoppard's 1982 play, The Real Thing, it's that accomplished intellectuals are a difficult bunch of buggers, and nigh on impossible to live with.
Take the protagonist, Henry, a celebrated playwright. He is a highly articulate literary acrobat, with a serrated edge to his wit, but also a linguistic snob, who can't help but ride roughshod over those around him. So naturally he struggles when it comes to love (the 'real thing' of the title), and barely grasps what it is, until it is about to vanish before his eyes.
Henry's life comes to mirror his own art, a play with the prophetic title of 'House of Cards', which features a husband discovering his wife's infidelity. He dumps his long-suffering spouse Charlotte (Sarah Woodward) and pinches Max's wife Annie (Jennifer Ehle),though later finds that she's having an affair with a young actor named Billy (Mark Bazeley).
While Stoppard's play deals with many subjects (love, betrayal, public image versus private persona), it also functions as a masterclass in the art of play writing. This is especially true when Henry rubbishes the hackwork penned by Annie's 'pacifist hooligan' friend Brodie (Joshua Henderson) with a compelling analogy between good writing and a cricket bat.
Occasionally you feel The Real Thing has dated in the seventeen years since it was written. The lines about digital watches and anti-missile demos seem particularly anachronistic. What does still work, though, is the use of poppy '60s tunes ('You've Lost That Lovin Feeling', 'I'm a Believer') which echo around Vicki Mortimer's loft-style set at key moments in the play.
Stephen Dillane gives a finely nuanced performance as the playwright, at turns flippant and sensitive. Nigel Lindsay, as Max, ably communicates the pain of losing his spouse. And Ms Ehle, whom I find somewhat overrated as an actress, complements Mr Dillane well under David Leveaux's direction.
Stoppard has written a drama of dazzling complexity here, which covers all the emotional bases. But in the end it is a line Henry uses to describe one of his own plays that best sums up what The Real Thing is about: 'Self-knowledge through pain'.