“Love among the architect classes. Again.”
Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play The Real Thing, one of his most successful, has been given a sparkling revival at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. It is a fast, witty, clever and perfectly constructed play and it has dated strikingly little in the thirty years since it was first put on, as love, marriage and relationships are an unchanging subject. People remain people over the years and human emotions remain as messy and complicated as they ever were. The Real Thing is the story of just one more of those messes, when two marriages are broken by infidelity, and how it works out.
Henry, the central character, is “one of those intellectual playwrights” so it should be no surprise that Stoppard gets him exactly right. He is sharp, charming and too articulate for his own good. When he hears his daughter sounding too much like him he warns her against it. At one point he describes words as sacred, innocent, neutral and precise, but at heart he is a romantic and the play is his journey towards understanding this and accepting the reality and danger of his own feelings and emotions. It costs him his first marriage and threatens his second but finally he is able to take an enormous risk and make himself vulnerable and open, able to be hurt. It’s a lovely part, a character who is complex and begins by being rather unlikeable until we warm to him slowly as his emotions open up, and Gerald Kyd understands him perfectly. It is a witty and intelligent performance, like watching an actor dancing on a tightrope of words provided by Stoppard.
The two women in his life, his first and second wives Charlotte and Annie are both very well played by Sarah Ball and Marianne Oldham. Charlotte never really managed to understand Henry in time to save their relationship, as she admits herself towards the end of the play, and her quiet regret at what she has lost is very touching. Annie is a part which needs a lot of charm and presence. She is the woman who finally manages to break Henry open and allow him to access what he needs to be truly happy and it takes someone special to do that. Marianne Oldham has the kind of luminous charm on stage that makes you believe that she could do that.
Annie’s first husband Max, a small but vital part, is beautifully played by Simon Scardifield. The most moving moment in the production, for me, was the moment early on when he realises that he has lost Annie and falls apart. We never see the consequences for him but that reaction leaves us in no doubt what they will be. The other minor characters, Henry’s daughter, Annie’s fellow actor Billy, and Brodie, the left wing rebel whose cause Annie takes up when he is imprisoned. are nicely played but not nearly so well drawn by Stoppard. In particular I don’t feel that he really gets under the skin of Brodie, and that is a missed opportunity.
The set is cool, classy and designed much in the style of the original production by Simon Higlett and allows swift progress from one scene to the next. It is quite beautifully lit by Paul Pyant. Technically the production is flawless.
So why am I not totally convinced, in spite of all the complimentary things that I have just said, that this is a genuinely great play? Perhaps it is because a play about love should have real fire and passion. It should have power enough to break your heart. Annie is playing in Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Miss Julie during the course of The Real Thing and both of those plays can do that in spades. A great production of either of them will leave you feeling like you have had the stuffing knocked out of you. As clever, sparkling and perfectly constructed as The Real Thing undoubtedly is it didn’t quite do that for me. Maybe I’m asking too much.