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Review: The Real Thing, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
WATCHING a comedy should, in theory, be pleasurable, but Shakespeare can be flippin’ hard work, and Tom Stoppard can be harder still.
Maybe that is why this West Yorkshire Playhouse/English Touring Theatre production is the first Stoppard at the Playhouse since Hapgood in 2008.
Whether The Real Thing is far too clever for its own good or not as clever as it thinks is a debate for another day, but Stoppard’s brittle wit, philosophical pontificating and dazzling wordplay can leave you adrift, not caring about his characters or their journey and wishing to reconnect with something real after a surfeit of arty artifice.
There is a sense of distance from the complex web you are watching, unlike the plays of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, despite their antiquity, and frankly Stoppard is about as warm on the subject of love as Prince Charles in his infamous engagement interview.
The Real Thing is Stoppard’s only play expressly to address love, although he had plenty more to say – and rather more romantically – in his film script for Shakespeare In Love.
Set in London in 1982, with a soundtrack to match, it opens with the world of architect Max (Simon Scardifield) falling apart as he discovers wife Charlotte (Sarah Ball) has been playing away. Except that we then find that wasn’t the real thing, but a play within the play, as we see him swanning into Charlotte and playwright husband Henry’s plush pad.
It transpires that smug, unbearably opinionated, grammar-obsessed Henry (Gerald Kyd) is having an affair with Max’s, er, real wife, actress Annie (Marianne Oldham), which is the source of his new play.
Henry is effectively Stoppard’s agent on stage, holding forth on life and art as he wrestles with the dilemma of choosing eight records for his upcoming appearance on Desert Island Discs. He would prefer to choose Sixties pop singles over classical works, yet knows that is not the done thing. This provides another – rather more appealing – strand to the debate on what is the real thing: three minutes of The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ or a full opera?
That debate is a mere sideline in the otherwise self-righteous conduct of Henry, and for all the elegant skill of Kyd’s performance, we tire of listening to Henry’s eloquence, long before he finally discovers what the real thing is.
It is all beautifully, brilliantly, cruelly written and played with tart archness by Kate Saxon’s cast. Frustratingly, however, The Real Thing never becomes the real deal as a thrilling, engrossing drama because it is always too pleased with itself, like when someone laughs at their own jokes.
• The Real Thing, West Yorkshire Playhouse/English Touring Theatre, at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until May 26, then touring until July 7. Leeds box office: 0113 213 7700 or wyp.org.uk