Each line in this play is so well turned, and so consciously literary, it’s difficult not to see them rising off the page even as they’re uttered. In ordinary circumstances this would be considered a failing of the playwright, except that this is Tom Stoppard we’re talking about, and the play in question is a self-referential text about the world of plays and the nature of playwriting.
The first scene, a marriage wrecking conversation between an architect and his wife, turns out to have been written by Henry, the principal character, a celebrated playwright whose marriage is disintegrating in similar circumstances. But then he has in any case been having an affair with Annie, some of whose scenes, though woven into Stoppard’s plot, are also part of a script she is performing as a professional actress. Add to this rug-pulling structure a further layer: speculation regarding how much the plot, like Pinter’s Betrayal, mirrors Stoppard’s own marital (mis)adventures.
It is difficult not to entertain the claims that the play was written for Felicity Kendall, who played the role of Annie in the original 1982 production and for whom Stoppard left his wife a number of years later. As for the real thing of the title, it turns out that Henry is something of a romantic idealist: “I love love. I love having a lover and being one. The insularity of passion. I love it. I love the way it blurs the distinction between everyone who isn’t one’s lover. Only two kinds of presence in the world. There’s you and there’s them. I love you so.”
The other genuine article Henry values is the gift for writing: there are those who possess it and those who don’t. Brodie, Annie’s politically fraudulent associate, whose agitprop teleplay Henry has been persuaded to edit, belongs quite simply to the latter category. Henry’s impassioned defense, in response to Annie’s accusation of elitism, is perhaps the neatest explanation of good playwriting I have ever heard and, on the basis that I will probably now be citing it on every playwriting or drama module I ever teach, it’s worth quoting in full:
“This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly. What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might… travel. Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It’s better because it’s better. You don’t believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on.”
But enough of the text. What of Stephen Unwin’s production? Jonathan Fenson’s sleek, minimalist stage design is temporally evasive, while the characters’ voguish retro dress sense, likewise, gives nothing away. Cleverly done, that: we could be in 1982, we might also be in 2017.
The script’s musical references also oscillate playfully between centuries. Henry waggishly accuses Bach of stealing from Procol Harum’s 1967 hit ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ then later suggests that “if Beethoven had been killed in a plane crash at twenty-two, the history of music would have been very different. As would the history of aviation, of course.” Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Annie is delightfully, endearingly childlike: she is a veritable naif besides Rebecca Johnson’s more worldly, weary cast-off first wife.
Which brings us to Laurence Fox. I entered the theatre a little sceptical. Is he, scion of a theatrical dynasty, a lucky success or a bona fide talent? Certainly he pulled off the near impossible trick of replacing, or at least credibly substituting, John Thaw in ITV’s long running series Lewis, but his voice has a slightly patrician garble which is even more pronounced on stage.
There is also a problem with volume. I was sat twelve rows back and I was straining slightly to hear: the relative indistinctness of his voice is thrown into contrast by the vocal projection and clarity of those who perform alongside him. Even when he shouts his voice has a muffled quality. Despite that, however, he has a certain magnetic quality, a powerful unforced stage presence, so that one feels compelled to listen, and watch, even if some of the words are lost.
Rarely seen outside the comfortable confines of his home, Fox’s Henry is a long, languorous lounge lizard with a sharp tongue and a sharper intellect. My scepticism dissolves. There is nothing ersatz in this performance.
The Real Thing is on a UK tour until November 11th. For more details, click here.