King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 28 October 2017
Guest reviewer: Martin Gray
It’s love among the middle classes at the King’s this week as Laurence Fox stars in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. The programme bears an image of a shirtless Fox with a sexy woman draped across him. He’s looking past her, the physical definition of agonised. This picture promises passion, Greek drama perhaps.
Oh, if only. The Real Thing is more like an episode of The Good Life taking itself far too seriously.
Henry is a successful playwright married to actress Charlotte. He’s having an affair with another actress, Annie, behind the back of her partner Max, yet another thespian. Apart from Henry, Annie’s passion is working with a group campaigning to free Brodie, a soldier imprisoned for misbehaviour during a protest march.
Max, who seems like a human being, vanishes from the play after the truth comes out, leaving most of the stage time to Henry, Annie and Charlotte, who don’t; they wander from scene to scene pontificating on honesty and love and authenticity and it is behind tiresome.
There’s no subtext, only text, and by God, is Stoppard going to make sure we don’t miss it.
Henry and Annie get married, but two years later he’s fretting that she’s having an affair with a younger actor, Billy. Annie wants Henry to shape a terrible play Brodie has written, marrying his flair for words with the soldier’s raw emotion and political views.
Meanwhile Debbie, his teenage daughter with Charlotte, who likes to call her parents by their forenames, is about to go on the road with a musician, but not before she’s made sure the folks know just how she lost her virginity.
Is Annie The One for Henry? Can a working class voice ever compete with a posh playwright? Does anyone really care?
Well, the first night audience at the King’s did seem to be enjoying Stoppard’s Tony-award winning play, directed by Stephen Unwin. Despite regular problems hitting the back of the theatre with his lines, the personable Fox nailed the laughs, with his Scottish accent rather outstanding.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst makes Annie, a woman whose attitudes to relationships are as weird as those of Charlotte and Henry, just about bearable company. It’s a shame Rebecca Johnson’s Charlotte doesn’t get a bit more stage time, as the character has a bite that makes her the most interesting of the players.
Venice Van Someren does a decent job with the thankless role of Debbie, a character type who was a cliche even in the Eighties, while Adam Jackson-Smith is thoroughly appealing as Max who, let’s be honest, has a lucky escape in being exiled from the company of Henry, Annie and Charlotte.
Trying to forgive this less-than-dramatic drama by looking on it as a period piece is tough given the anachronisms you can’t help mulling over during the long moments of unsubtle scene-shifting. The production design messes with any clear notion of when the show is set.
Henry’s typewriter is a manual, his record player not much beyond a wind-up, but the lamp looks IKEA, while the clothing is anything from the Nineties up. And if the typewriter is a Brother, Fox looks a total hipster Bro with some very millennial tattoos.
The opening scene plays like an Agatha Christie, with the characters introduced before one gets poisoned, or shot, or whatever, and the detective comes on. The Real Thing would be thoroughly enlivened by a murder, but, sadly, everyone survives to the final act.
For what it is – a revival of a hit play by one of Britain’s wittiest, most accomplished playwrights – this isn’t bad. But there’s nothing here to explain why it’s been brought back, or just what its roll call of self-absorbed Bohemians has to say to 21st century audiences.