Tim Piggot-Smith sets his nicely concise production of Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play in period - within a year or two - with an evocative soundtrack of pop songs that includes not only the sixties favourites of Henry, the playwright around whom the plot revolves, but also Madonna’s 1984 Like A Virgin.
On the surface this is Stoppard’s nod to boulevard comedy, featuring urbane witty characters and their tangled relationships. But although it may lack the dazzling theatrical and philosophical acrobatics of Jumpers, Travesties and Arcadia, Stoppard still demonstrates a nifty way with concepts as well as words.
The title covers several deliciously ironic layers of meaning, from real love to the artifice of theatre. Often, Stoppard plays with our perceptions – we think we’re watching ‘reality’ - the reality of the play at least - and it turns out to be a scene from a play within the play.
There’s been speculation about how autobiographical this play might be. Stoppard calls it his ‘love play’, but although he admits Henry is speaking for him, he avers ‘so are the people contradicting him … playmaking is … to take everybody's side’. In The Real Thing, ‘everybody’ encompasses Henry, his actress wives Charlotte then Annie, Annie's first husband, Max, and representing the younger generation, not just daughter Debbie, but also Annie’s young admirer, fellow actor Billy, and her cause célèbre, prisoner-of-conscience Brodie.
The comedy often resides in their less loveable traits. Henry’s stubborn philistinism about classical music is as much an irritant to Annie as her blinkered championing of a patently bad play by her protégé, Brodie, is to Henry. Marital deception and infidelity are endemic, but there’s something touching in Henry’s eventual acceptance of the situation as it is, in the face of his need for his wife, which makes this indeed a play about ‘real’ love.
Tom Conti’s relaxed understated style suits the play and gives it a solid, warm centre. Elizabeth Payne and Nina Young are well cast as Charlotte and Annie. Young especially seizes the chance to show Annie maturing, not always happily, from mistress to wife. But then Henry and Annie are the only characters given the stage time to develop. Malcolm Stoddard as Max demonstrates eloquently the hurt caused by marital fallout and Tom Frederic’s Billy is attractive enough to turn the head of any leading lady. Annabel Sholey makes a feisty Debbie and Steven Cree a convincingly strident Brodie. But I would have liked to get to know them all in more depth, rather than meet them in the rather brief cameos Stoppard allows them.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at Milton Keynes Theatre)