By Ray Bennett
LONDON – Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” an incisive and funny but warm examination of love, possessiveness and infidelity, cleaned up at the Tony Awards on its two Broadway outings in 1984 and 2000, and the Old Vic’s new production upholds that excellent standard.
Toby Stephens plays Henry, a gifted and sardonic playwright, who likens the art of writing to the way a cricket bat is finely crafted to make a clean and lasting strike. The opening scene is one from a play he has written in which a cuckolded husband cracks increasingly hysterical jokes upon discovering his wife’s unfaithfulness.
Henry is much smoother in his own adultery, leaving one actress for another in the belief that his second choice is the love of his life, the real thing. No surprise, then, when she betrays him, but with typical skill Stoppard spurns the obvious and delves into the whys and wherefores of fidelity and ramifications of betrayal.
Hattie Morahan plays Annie, his young mistress, who seems skittish at first but shows strength and determination as their marriage goes on. First wife Charlotte (Fenella Woolgar) and Annie’s distraught husband Max (Barnaby Kay) are left to pick up the pieces, although there are surprises in that, too.
The thread that runs through the sturdy spine of the play has to do with commitment and what it really means. Henry’s commitment to good writing is tested by the urgency that Annie finds in the unskilled play of a young radical in prison. His commitment to Annie is challenged by her apparently casual willingness to stray when tempted by someone younger.
There are wonderfully lyrical and well-crafted lines in the play but also scenes of great depth that show the damage that indifference can do. Director Anna Mackmin is adept at balancing scenes that go from wisecracks to tears and back again, and she draws adroit and complex performances from her cast.
With impressive command, Stephens inhabits Henry’s world with the confidence of someone who believes he has all the emotional and intellectual means to glide through any entanglement only to discover that he is as vulnerable as the rest of us.
Morahan captures the giddy excitement of illicit infatuation but shows Annie growing with the realization that Henry’s love might not be as all encompassing as she anticipated. Woolgar, with her gift for droll line readings, and Kay, who brings full measure to Max’s distress, give the abandoned spouses vital presence.
It’s a genuinely humane comedy, and Stoppard gives flight to some wonderfully entertaining riffs on art and love, but with his affection for early pop records he confirms happily Noel Coward’s assertion regarding the potency of cheap music.
Venue: The Old Vic, London (through June 5)
Cast: Toby Stephens, Hattie Morahan, Fenella Woolgar, Barnaby Kay, Tom Austen, Louise Calf, Jordan Young
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Director: Anna Mackmin
Set designer: Lez Brotherston
Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound designer: Simon Baker for Autograph
Video designer: Duncan McLean
This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter