The Real Thing

If I had to make a list of theatre productions, Desert Island Disc-style, to take to my island, one of them would be David Leveaux’s flawless revival of Sir Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 1991. Stephen Dillane played Henry, the super-articulate pedagogic playwright, and Jennifer Ehle, his second wife, an actress, who breaks his heart when she has a fling and they made Stoppard’s already brilliant play a dazzler. Georgina-Brown-colour-176

Unlike poor Lawrence Fox – one of the Fox theatrical dynasty and best known as DS Hathaway in Lewis on the telly – who plays Henry in Stephen Unwin’s sleek but slack production. In the play’s most famous speech, Fox’s Henry explains that his job is to write cricket bats ‘so that when we throw up an idea and give it a knock it might travel’. This play is a superbly sprung cricket bat. The trouble is that Fox is no cricketer. His performance has no bounce.

Admittedly it is a big part. But Fox is not yet match fit and is merely getting through his lines and never for one second looking as if he might have come up with them himself, which is what makes a character – and a play – really come to life on stage. Dillane’s Henry knocked them for six. Unforgettably.

This play was something of a departure for Stoppard when he wrote it in 1982. In a way it is his equivalent of Coward’s Private Lives or Pinter’s Betrayal, a searching portrayal of the rapturous, raw and wretched emotion that is love. And like Betrayal, it turns out The Real Thing is the closest Stoppard has ever come to self-revelation. It was dedicated to Miriam, his wife at the time, and premiered with Felicity Kendal (his then lover and muse) playing the actress with whom Henry the playwright is having an affair. They marry. She is unfaithful. He suffers.

Certainly the emotions in this piece smack of painful personal experience. Yet they come wrapped up in Stoppardian tricksiness and frisky wit. For another preoccupation of the play concerns what it is to be a good writer: art or heart. The answer is both, as powerfully illustrated in almost every line and the playful theatrical structure.

Unwin’s revival begins well with Max (Adam Jackson-Smith) accusing his actress wife, who has arrived home from a trip abroad, of adultery. To say more would spoil the fun for those who haven’t seen the play. But what appears to be real is not necessarily so. Then Fox’s Henry appears, and the energy level dives disastrously in spite of the slightly hyper efforts of Flora Spencer-Longhurst. Disappointing.