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Review Round-up: Sher's Travelling Light at NT

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The National Theatre production of Nicholas Wright’s Travelling Light - the first of two plays Antony Sher will star in at the National over the next two years - opened last night at the NT Lyttelton (18 January, previews from 11 January 2012).

Wright's play celebrates the large number of Eastern European émigrés who helped created Hollywood's golden age in the mid-20th century.

Sher plays Jacob, an ebullient timber-merchant whose encouragement of a young man’s enthusiasm for cinematography leads to success far beyond their remote Eastern European village.

The play, which continues in rep until 6 March 2012, attracted a broad spread of critical opinion...

Judi Herman

"Nicholas Wright’s beguiling alternative account of the birth of the moving picture industry opens on stage just as the ravishing silent film The Artist garners a sheaf of award nominations … Hytner’s creative team rise superbly to the challenge of showing monochrome film against the shtetl backdrop. Bob Crowley’s sepia tumble of roofs and warm wood interiors are complemented by the autumnal tones of Vicki Mortimer’s costumes and Bruno Poet’s lighting. The cast have huge fun in Jon Driscoll’s gorgeously pastiche film footage and there’s a whole new cast of actors in the rushes of the nascent feature … Antony Sher, fresh from playing a self-hating Jew in Broken Glass, clearly revels in his terrific comic creation of the larger-than-life Jacob – a man very much at home in his skin and his position as community elder."

Michael Billington

"In suggesting that shooting in the shtetl offered a prototype of Hollywood pressures, Wright sometimes over-advertises his ironies. When Jacob outlines instantly recognisable scenarios for future films and when Motl declares he wants to escape to America because he won't be tortured by budgets, we laugh all too knowingly. But what Wright captures vividly is the pioneering belief that films could be ‘noble, miraculous things’ and the excitement of discovering new techniques … What also gives the play its dynamism is that we see, in Nicholas Hytner's immensely skilful production, the visual evidence. Bob Crowley's set, with its Chagall-like silhouettes of shtetl roofs, gives ample scope for Jon Driscoll's fine video and projections … It is Antony Sher who steals the honours as the ebullient Jacob, a self-consciously wise peasant who seems to have stepped out of a Sholom Aleichem story. It is one of those performances in which the actor seems to have expanded to twice his usual size."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Wright's unabashedly sentimental piece is replete with folksy humour and features a commanding performance from Antony Sher. Steeped in nostalgia, this is theatre which advertises its interest in the past … In Nicholas Hytner's well-cast production there are fine ensemble scenes. Yet it's a little hard to believe the villagers haven't previously experienced the magic of storytelling, so the excitement with which they greet the narrative possibilities of film appears a touch improbable … There is poised work from Lauren O'Neil as Anna, and Damien Molony is engaging as Motl. Sher is explosively energetic as Jacob, but his full-throttle interpretation ultimately feels too broad. There are alluring projections by Jon Driscoll, but Wright's play doesn't trust the power of images as much as it should - and as much as cinema does.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"The adjective ‘cheesy’ is insufficient for the new play at the Royal National Theatre. It may star Sir Antony Sher. It may have been directed by Sir Nicholas Hytner. It may have been basted by all the love and money of a big cast and a luxuriant set. But the thing is theatrical gorgonzola - laughably cliched, weirdly wooden, incredible in the literal sense … A couple of brief scenes in Hollywood come as a relief but soon descend into far-fetched coincidence … Travelling Light may aspire to reflect the amazing success of Jewish film-makers in America but it fails. It is as hoary as anything you might expect to see on a visit to a living- history tourist attraction in provincial Lithuania. The only surprise was that at the end they did not break into a song from Fiddler on the Roof.”

Paul Taylor

"The best thing about the show, in my opinion, is the brilliantly punning title which makes me shiver with delight each time I ponder it. It beautifully blends the idea of emigration and of cinematography, bringing out the projection-room shimmer in the phrase ... Great subject matter but the play - and the production - fail to rise to their own piquant occasion. The ironies are handled with a limp obviousness (you couldn't cite this piece in the same breath as, say, Christopher Hampton's play about emigres on the west coast, Tales from Hollywood). Though the Lyttelton is more like a cinema than most theatres, the physical production is bafflingly duff. The twee shtetl skyline in Bob Crowley's design is so dinky and endearing that it makes Barbra Streisand's (rather brilliant) Yentl look like Le Chagrin et La Pitie. I kept thinking that I would like to see this subject explored in the Old Vic tunnels by Robert Lepage."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"Our theatres these days are so full of shows based on old films, from The Wizard of Oz to Legally Blonde, that it is intriguing to see the traffic going the other way for once. But though it is intermittently charming and funny, Travelling Light lacks dramatic depth, and this story of the early days of the movies has nothing like the sweetness or panache of the brilliant new silent movie The Artist … The show is often inventive and amusing, and director Nicholas Hytner has come up with antique looking film of both village life and the narrative movie Mendl makes that is projected onto an on stage screen … More depth and passion are badly needed and throughout the play one is constantly aware that Wright’s play would work much better as a movie than it does in the theatre."


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