The Old Vic, London SE1
Opened 21 April, 2010

On the last major London revival of Tom Stoppard’s play in 1999, the consensus view was that it had aged well since its 1982 composition, both as a work in itself and within the context of Tom Stoppard's œuvre. Anna Mackmin's production, I am afraid – and through no fault of hers or the cast’s – suggests rather the opposite. In that time the "adultery in NW3" play has declined first into clichédom and then moribundity, yet here we have such a play whose protagonist is a playwright, and which opens with a scene from his own latest "adultery in NW3" play. Being by Tom Stoppard, of course, it is about art, politics and personal commitment as much as the heart, and being by Stoppard, all these matters are articulated masterfully... and pretty much non-stop through the second half, with the first act being more of a gamesome set-up for the real matter. The background music itself conducts a debate of its own as to whether or not pop can express the same emotional depth as classical. (It can, but not if you use an inferior re-recording of The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron”.) But it still feels more like an exercise than the self-exposure on Stoppard's part that it seemed to be at the time.
For some time earlier in his career Toby Stephens seemed a consummate dramatic technician but one who never let us feel we were getting under his or his character's skin. That coldness has all but vanished from his more recent work; however, in the role of Henry here he plays a man who is similarly inclined. Henry is all about the words and the ideas, albeit that this transpires to be a carapace built over his too-thin romantic skin. Stephens walks the line well, but the result is too close for comfort to his older proficient performances. In comparison, Hattie Morahan's Annie is a thrillingly sensitive creature, gradually discarding the early self-conscious giggles which mask Annie's uncertainty, as she and Henry begin to grapple with issues in their own lives rather than either political or artistic matters.
Mackmin's production is polished and intelligent (as good Stoppard demands) but, following as it does at this address Six Degrees Of Separation, I could not rid myself of a worry that The Old Vic may be becoming the kind of middle-class coterie venue... well, for which Henry would naturally write.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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