Written by Tom Stoppard some years after his first outrageously comedic plays had been published, 1982's The Real Thing was, by comparison, quite orthodox and quite straightforward in its storytelling. But that's by Stoppard standards; it remains a complicated mixture of reality and theatrical fabrication, of onstage characters and offstage relationships.

Henry is a successful playwright, enjoying all life has to offer and indulging his greatest love - that of the English language and the gloriously precise use of words. His somewhat secondary love is Annie, an actress married to Max, the leading man in Henry's current stage success (House of Cards), which also happens to star Henry's real-life wife, Charlotte, as Max's fictional wife.

The trick opening shows Max (Michael Lumsden) and Charlotte (Liz Crowther) performing a scorching extract from House of Cards, followed by a scene in which the true relations become more slowly apparent. This is done so ingenuously well that, on the night I attended, the first act closed to a spontaneous round of applause from the audience who clearly appreciated the twist as well as the fast pace, clever dialogue and really very funny jokes.

Unfortunately, Alan Strachan's production of the real play loses impetus thereafter. With 12 scenes and a running time of 21/4 hours, a snappy pace is a must, but cumbersome scene changes, unnecessarily over-constructed sets (care of Kit Surrey), and a rather stiff performance from John Gordon Sinclair as Henry diminish the initial impact.

Where Henry might be soft, insinuating and totally loveable in his insistence of his prejudices and his pedantic obsession with the English language, Gordon Sinclair's portrayal is bristling and irritatingly supercilious. His attacking style becomes monotonous and even the famous cricket bat speech, which should have the audience hanging on his every word longing for the final climactic proclamation, is delivered with little passion.

In reaction, Suzan Sylvester's Annie seems forced to retaliate with rather too much vim, verve and vigour, her reactions often overly fierce. Dialogue is reduced to a series of extremely antagonistic exchanges. That said, Sylvester's overall performance has an emotional depth that eventually wins the audience over.

One well-loved 1960s pop track or another closes each scene with perfect aptness, adding an enjoyably nostalgic dimension to proceedings. But backing tracks are inadequate compensation for the lack of sparkle and the negative emotional charge generated amongst the cast.

- Annie Dawes (reviewed at Plymouth's Theatre Royal)