The Real Thing, which premiered in 1982, rattles along today with all the breathless intrigue it ever had. The English Touring Theatre present a deftly compelling drama that draws in its audience and keeps us closely fascinated for every minute of the evening.
Tom Stoppard might be a playwright with highly burnished credentials of intellectual brilliance. But in this work he adds credibility and heart to the wordplay. His theme is love - its meaning, its victims and its winners. Say what you like, love is still the most compelling concoction - the most riveting, the most beguiling of subjects. From sixteenth century passionate incest in Ford’s “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” through to the intense coquetry of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” (both plays which weave rather delicately into the fabric of Stoppard’s play), love is the core. Or, as the cynical daughter of the playwright in The Real Thing calls it: “Infidelity among the architect class. Again.” And deception in love is a consistent theme throughout the play which even begins with a trick.
We watch fascinated as a woman, Charlotte, returns from her trip to Switzerland. A tense wordy exchange with her hyper-sensitive husband, Max, ensues and he reveals that he knows she is having an affair because she left her passport behind “in her recipe drawer.”
In the next scene, Charlotte appears again, played with stylish zest by Sarah Ball. This time she is married to Henry, a famous playwright who is in the process of choosing his records for an appearance on Desert Island Discs. Puzzling. But we soon realize - some of us later than others- that this is reality, and the previous drama was just a play - written of course by the dashing playwright himself who is now the centre of the drama.
Played with stunning virtuosity by Gerald Kyd, Henry now dominates the action. The previous scene was fiction – as is all of it – but quite honestly such is the quality of the acting in this deeply compelling production, the audience is mesmerized into complicity.
More deception follows. Annie, the beautiful wife of Max, the actor who opens the play, is Henry’s lover and the two of them soon decide to decamp.
“I love being a lover and having a lover,” declares the expansive romantic Henry. He believes passionately that lovers are unique, that they are two people against the universe, known in a special and exclusive way to each other and to no one else.
His new paramour Annie loves him back but is irked by her ex- husband’s cloying dependence on her. “So much ink spent on the unrequited lover,” she declares heartlessly, “but no one writes about the tedium of having to listen to endless declarations of love.”
Her enthusiastic cause is a young soldier she has met on a train. He has written a play about his false conviction for assault of policemen and firing a wreath on the cenotaph. Annie persuades her new husband to involve himself in this “real drama.” Only later do we meet Brodie, the subject of all this earnest writing, and we learn that the “real thing” is a fiction dreamed up by Annie and foisted on this brash and threatening young person. Sandy Bachelor, as the strangely elusive Brodie, is quite the most expansively brutish character of the play and it is a huge credit to him that he manages to convey the double nature of the events around Brodie, not to mention Brodie’s ambiguous nature, with so much casual intensity.
Annie, whose character is wonderfully developed by the captivating Marianne Oldham, continues her delicately reckless progress through the drama, hooking up at one stage with her younger leading man, Billy - a part which Adam O’Brian really brings to physical muscular life. His volcanic flouncing in the scene where he rehearses Brodie’s play with Annie, is nothing short of brilliant.
Max, the naïve but genuinely feeling husband played by Simon Scardfield, gives us the most affecting and intense performance of the evening while Debbie, the much discussed daughter played with deadpan accuracy by Georgina Leonodas, was outstanding in a small role.
The Real Thing is a rare thing indeed. Fascinating to watch, there wasn’t a moment when the audience wasn’t entirely captivated and it’s a play you brood over afterwards. The production must claim credit for the seamlessness of the experience. Producer Caroline Dyott doesn’t let any detail slip and creates a timeless set where period detail doesn’t jar and the action is truly centre stage.
In the end we discover that many characters we thought were the Real Thing are nothing of the sort. The heroic Brodie, passionate Annie and whimsical Charlotte have secret versions of themselves; fictional personalities they are slow to disclose. Even Henry, the playwright, has to change and concede that his intellect is not the be-all and end-all of life.
Love does triumph, but in a way that makes you think again and again about its wonderful diversity, its power and madness. A brilliant night at the theatre with a cast it’s worth paying twice the ticket price to see. Do go.
The Real Thing is playing at Cambridge Arts Theatre from Tuesday 29 May to Saturday June 2nd 2012