Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing is gloriously revived at the Old Vic by director Anna Mackmin, not only as the play that in 1982 confirmed that Stoppard had a heart, but as a stylish comedy classic dealing in love, jealousy, pop music, political theatre and great jokes.
And in the performances of Toby Stephens as the playwright Henry and Hattie Morahan as his actress lover and second wife Annie, we have the best romantic double act on the London stage in a very long time.
At first they can hardly keep their hands off each other, even with Henry’s first wife Charlotte (Fenella Woolgar), also an actress, chopping up nibbles in the kitchen. But the bond is stretched when Annie insists on championing the rubbish play of a “pacifist hooligan” and then succumbs to the overtures of her co-star in a Glasgow revival of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore.
There’s a wonderful, spring-heeled gaiety in Stoppard’s (and Henry’s) insistence on his obligation to language above causes – “save the gerund and screw the whale” – and his devotion to the most potently disarming of the lighter pop music, from the Righteous Brothers and the Ronettes to Neil Sedaka and Herman’s Hermits.
The comedy is layered, too, with an eye on performance: the opening scene is revealed as an adultery-charged scrap in Henry’s play, “House of Cards”, while Henry is at home preparing his selection of records for an appearance on Desert Island Discs.
And en route to an extract from Brodie’s dismal play, which Henry has agreed to doctor against his better instincts, but for love of Annie, we see Annie and the persistent actor Billy (Tom Austen, fresh from drama school, making a fine debut) consumed by incestuous passion in Glasgow.
This scene is cleverly played on the downstage ramp of Lez Brotherston’s framing white envelope of a set. Otherwise, the scene changes are neatly done with sliding panels and great lighting by Hugh Vanstone. There is good work from Barnaby Kay as the cuckolded actor Max and Louise Calf as the daughter who ate like a horse until she owned one.
But the evening belongs to Stephens and Morahan, coming into their kingdom as light comedians with hidden depths. Stephens has ironed out some vocal mannerisms and sharpened his intellectual capacity no end, while Morahan glows with high spirits and happiness. They are a perfect match, and they play beautifully, and very carefully, from start to finish.