Review: The Mentor (Vaudeville Theatre)
Laurence Boswell's production of Daniel Kehlmann's play has transferred to the West End from Bath Theatre Royal
Daniel Kehlmann is very big in Germany. His novels outsell JK Rowling and Dan Brown. But on the basis of The Mentor, his second play, Tom Stoppard and Alan Bennett have no need to fear for their British laurels.
This is the kind of play that gives theatre a bad name – which is ironic since its story is about a very bad playwright called Martin who writes plays featuring 35 performers and a concrete mixer and yet has been called the voice of his generation. He takes up the opportunity to go on a five day mentoring retreat with an eminent writer called Benjamin Rubin, who wrote a great play when he was 24, yet a lifetime later has never produced anything to match it.
Both men are there for the 10,000 Euro fee, and are puffed up poltroons of ego and vanity. But when Rubin decides to tell his young protégée that his new play is "just dreadful, worthless" it triggers a sequence of highly unlikely events and much philosophical agonising. "To be a writer is a decision for life," opines Martin, which is about as deep as it gets.
Because The Mentor is translated by Christopher Hampton, runs to a nifty 80 minutes and features a small cast, it has a superficial similarity with Art. But in that play there was a sense of something at stake, both in terms of the arguments about the value of art itself – and of the friendships depicted. Here nothing much matters, no-one is real, and the conversations about authorship come down to cod metaphysics where statements such as "birds only know they exist" are greeted with the seriousness of revealed truth.
The main reason to see The Mentor is to see F Murray Abraham, proving at 77 that he can still hold a stage and a role. Spry and light on his feet, he waves his hands elegantly, and rolls that mellifluous voice to good effect. It's hardly a revelatory performance but he has both charm and all the best lines, which he relishes. It is however a symptom of the play's essential laziness that we are asked to believe that Martin's young wife (Naomi Frederick making the most of a thankless task) will find him irresistible. As Martin, Daniel Weyman shouts a lot and folds his body like a coathanger as his world clatters down around him. His sheer physical vigour raises a laugh, yet the improbability of his character means that it is shallow rather than lasting.
The play was a success in its first incarnation in the Ustinov Studio in Bath, under the direction of Lawrence Boswell. Reinvented for a proscenium arch, it relies too much on getting its actors who also include Jonathan Cullen as a harassed arts administrator, to stand on raised steps on either side of the stage. But Polly Sullivan's set, with a cherry tree and pretentious chairs shaped like hands, is at least pretty to look at. Whenever I got really angry at the play's smug pretension, I consoled myself with that.
The Mentor runs at Vaudeville Theatre from 4 July to 2 September.