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Review Round-up: Real Thing Gets Richer With Age

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The Real Thing lived up to its title for critics last night (21 April 2010, previews from 10 April), with the opening of Anna Mackmin’s revival at the Old Vic. Tom Stoppard’s 1982 award-winner was hailed as a modern classic that not only stands the test of time but “gets richer with each viewing”.

Henry (Toby Stephens is married to Charlotte (Fenella Woolgar), an actress playing the lead in his current play about adultery. Her co-star Max (Barnaby Kay) is married to Annie (Hattie Morahan), also an actor. When Henry and Annie fall in love, Henry discovers that love - ‘the real thing’ - can be unpredictable and painful.

When it premiered in London and New York in the 1980s, The Real Thing won the Evening Standard and Tony Awards for Best Play. It was famously revived at the Donmar Warehouse in 1999, in a production that starred Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle as Henry and Annie. The following year, that production also transferred first to the West End and then on to Broadway, where it won three Tony Awards, for Best Revival of a Play and Best Actor and Actress for Dillane and Ehle.

The new production, which continues until 5 June 2010, returns Stoppard’s work to the Old Vic, where his first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was a breakthrough hit for the then-resident National Theatre in 1967. The cast also includes Tom Austen, Louise Calf and Jordan Young. Design is by Lez Brotherston.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “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 … 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.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Back in 1982, when it was first seen, few would have guessed that this play would turn out to be amongst Tom Stoppard's most durable. But like that other study of bourgeois adultery, Harold Pinter's Betrayal, it gets richer with each viewing; and, even if Anna Mackmin's revival is not flawless, it deftly shows how Stoppard puts structural ingenuity to the service of emotional truth … Mackmin's production misses the mannered Cowardesque suavity of the initial play-within-a-play scene that sets up the adultery motif. But where her production scores is through Toby Stephens' masterful performance as Henry. More than previous occupants of the role, Stephens brings out Henry's supercilious arrogance and ironic detachment … Laced with Stoppard's characteristic wit … Stoppard is here writing, with incomparable grace and style and in a way we can all recognise, about the high cost of loving.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Anna Mackmin’s fine revival sustains your interest in the unfurling plot and unravelling relationships but does equal justice to the play’s considerable complexity … Intricate stuff, fascinating stuff, the more so because Mackmin has got excellent performances from her principals. At first I found Hattie Morahan too elfin, too pixilated, but she quickly revealed herself as the sort of pixie, imp or sprite who isn’t only wayward and mischievous but capable of injury. And Toby Stephens seems frighteningly urbane as he delivers polished lines and smart retorts galore, yet he ends up being what the play demands. He’s vulnerable. He hurts. He has deepened — and so has Tom Stoppard’s work.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Tom Stoppard is often characterised as a dramatist who mixes intimidating cleverness with extravagant showmanship, but in Anna Mackmin’s humane revival of this play from 1982 he seems passionate and poignant … Structurally ingenious; Stoppard’s play proposes a complex relationship between wit, morality, taste and truth. The central performances are excellent. As Annie, Hattie Morahan conveys the delicious madness of infatuation. She’s winsome when angry and playful when tender or incredulous. There’s strong work, too, from Fenella Woolgar as the angular, caustic Charlotte. Toby Stephens, who plays Henry, has never been better. He’s foppish, priapic and urbane, making the word ‘lacuna’ sound like a decadent holiday destination. Yet when he finds himself learning about what he calls ‘dignified cuckoldry’ he exhibits a wonderful delicacy. His pain is palpable … Stoppard is at his most sumptuously quotable throughout. While the trademark intelligence is evident, so is a bracing emotional honesty.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (five stars) – “The Real Thing is a play that glows with love’s warmth and burns with love’s pain. It certainly is not embarrassing, childish or rude, but it is manifestly deeply felt, and it is as close as Stoppard will ever come, I suspect, to writing a piece that is nakedly autobiographical. This is a piece that clearly comes from the heart … The Real Thing is also an unashamedly elitist play … Toby Stephens seems to be living his character’s emotions as he speaks. Hattie Morahan brings a lovely mixture of mischief, vulnerability and underlying toughness to a performance as Annie that put me in mind of the young Kendal. There is superb work too from Fenella Woolgar as Henry’s formidable wife … It’s a glorious play, in which Tom Stoppard’s wit and intellectual rigour is warmed by the glow of romance.”
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