Reviewed by Ciara Chapman
Henry, the protagonist of Tom Stoppard's 'The Real Thing', appears to be based closely on the playwright himself. He has it all: his quick wit, intellectual superiority and theatrical success means men want to be him, while his charm and charisma make women want to be with him. In short, he is almost insufferable.
'The Real Thing' is simultaneously a sly dig at conceited literati, and a love letter to the powers of a clever reply or a passionate monologue. However, in this touring version, stylishly directed by Stephen Unwin, any emotional punches fall short.
Perhaps the 1982 script just hasn’t aged well – the political struggles that Henry so eloquently criticises is perfectly legitimised and praised in 2017. Increased awareness of intersectionality and inherent privilege mean that to a contemporary audience these characters appear less witty intellectuals, more unbearable stereotypes of champagne socialists and masculine elitism. Brodie, the anti-intellectual anarchist, was a slice of working class, Scottish comic relief. It was a misstep for the Edinburgh audience, as were the jokes about Glasgow.
It is not the fault of the actors, who manage to cajole a sense of realistic dialogue and genuine chemistry out of Stoppard’s dense script. Laurence Fox is an engaging lead, his delivery is spot on and the audience laugh right on cue – it’s hard not to be won over by his romance or self-deprecating humour. The other characters think so too; his wife, mistress and daughter (who, with her black lipstick and fishnets, is an embarrassingly inaccurate example of a teenage girl) might make long speeches about how snobbish his options, but he can silence them with a witty retort. The other, less educated men fade into the background, whilst Henry always comes out on top.
In a play supposedly about love, no one seems to even like each other. Many of the truest lines about love are lost in the rush to get to the next punchline. It’s a short play, and there was time to let the characters breathe a little, to allow some tenderness to seep through.
The greatest pity in this version is the wasted potential, the lack of courage in really engaging in what the play could be; a discussion between theatricality and reality. The lights stay up for the scene changes as if to suggest the characters are constantly in a play-within-a-play, but the actors slink off straight away, so it seems as if the technical team simply forgot to fade to blackout.
The result is a disjointed plot, where the audience are left struggling to piece together some deeper meaning. There is a sense of confusion and even disappointment at the painfully smug ending, as though for all of Henry’s agonising, all the broken hearts and soul-searching, none of it even mattered. Perhaps that is the point, but it does leave you with a sour taste in your mouth, as though the time invested by the audience was meaningless. ‘The Real Thing’ is often considered Stoppard’s first play with a real heart, yet in this version it barely has a pulse.
'The Real Thing' will conclude its UK tour at Theatre Royal, Brighton: Mon 30th October 2017 to Sat 4th November 2017