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Seminar (Hampstead Theatre)

Roger Allam plays an American writer in Theresa Rebeck's comedy of intellectual manners

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Oliver Hembrough (Douglas), Roger Allam (Leonard) and Rebecca Grant (Izzy) in Seminar
© Alistair Muir

Think Oleanna crossed with Art. You might as well, because Theresa Rebeck seems to have done just that in her 2011 Broadway success that's been slickly directed by Terry Johnson for its UK premiere at the Hampstead Theatre. Seminar, though, lacks the conviction of either play: its barbs scratch where they should stab and laughs, where they occur, are cheaply bought.

Four attractive twenty-somethings, aspiring writers all, have paid serious money to attend a course of seminars under the tutelage of Leonard, an old-school literary editor and former novelist who believes you can only write when you have lived, and whose definition of living equates to regular treks through emerging African countries.

The play's feeble construction is evident right at the start. We find the students jockeying for position (and exposition) with a bout of hip-lit banter, but no sooner has Oliver Hembrough's insufferable Douglas made an ass of himself than he conveniently exits to the lavatory so that the other three can talk about him behind his back.

"Although Allam appears to be acting on autopilot, it's still a Rolls-Royce engine"

Hembrough, who is saddled with the most thankless of the younger roles, engages heroically with his character; but then so do they all, even when their behavioural arc becomes implausible. Rebecca Grant and Charity Wakefield may be pigeon-holed as totty and feminist respectively, but you just know that before the evening's out Rebeck will have jumped the shark of their stereotypes.

The excellent Bryan Dick, shuffling and shambolic, slowly rises to the surface and becomes the nemesis to Roger Allam's smarmy Leonard, challenging his complacency, defying his seniority and using the older man's own past against him. It all seems to be heading towards a showdown until, true to form, the playwright's sentimental streak ensures a closing cop-out.

Although Allam appears to be acting on autopilot, it's still a Rolls-Royce engine and he is predictably mesmerising. Yet the character is so poorly developed that even he struggles to put flesh on its bones. While we can wallow in that black-coffee voice with its familiar sardonic cadences, Leonard himself is a cipher in his own play.

Lez Brotherston's elegant set holds a more surprising secret than anything in the text, for not even Johnson's beautifully paced direction can conceal the fact that Rebeck has little of consequence to say about her nominal theme, the struggle to succeed as a creative artist. She seems more interested in humiliating, undressing and wrong-footing her protagonists than exploring their destinies. You'll detect more undercurrents in an episode of Friends.

Seminar continues at Hampstead Theatre until 1 November - for more information click here