This stylish revival of a near 30 year old play by master craftsman Tom Stoppard raises rather more questions than it answers. And though the central character, Henry, is brilliantly played by Toby Stevens, it's difficult to feel any sympathy or empathy for his predicament – but perhaps that's exactly how we're meant to react.
Henry is a married playwright who gets romantically involved with an actress, Annie. When their affair is discovered, Henry and Annie move in together, but their relationship, born of risk and deceit, is itself put at risk first by Annie's involvement in what Henry regards as a badly written play by an ex-con who Annie thinks has been unjustly convicted, and second by Henry's jealousy and mistrust about Annie's involvement with another actor, Billy.
Anna Mackmin's deft and creative direction avoids the potential trap of the whole thing sinking into a mire of wordiness. There's interesting use of video and popular music which links the scenes throughout. However, there were times when the scene changes had me guessing about the time frame and location because there is only one basic set which is adjusted via sliding panels for different scenes.
Stoppard's wry wit peppers the play. There are some very amusing lines, especially from Henry, for example when he's discussing Brodie's play and says it is 'like being run over very slowly'. But it's not all jokes and quips. There are also emotionally serious and semi-tragic moments, for example when Henry suspects Annie of deceit, and when he is left alone on stage at the end of the play. However, though Henry has some likeable qualities, he's also aloof and dogmatic, for example in his precise use of language, and it's not easy to warm to him.
Hattie Morahan is quite simply perfect as Annie. From the moment we first meet her, she bubbles and fizzes with exuberance, capturing succinctly the huge excitement she feels in her risky, new-found liaison with Henry. Fenella Woolgar is Henry's accepting wife who is able to move on in the wake of Henry's desertion. And there are two fine professional débuts from Tom Austen as Billy and Louise Calf as Henry's daughter, Debbie.
Though this is a well-produced and well-acted revival, it's hard to establish just what the 'The Real Thing' is actually telling us about true romantic love. Certainly it's about trust, respect and the pain – the torment even - of loving someone. But these themes are clouded by the initial deceit upon which Annie and Henry's relationship was built. Henry doubts Annie's fidelity because of that deceit, and succumbs to jealousy and suspicion more than if, for example, he and Annie had not been in relationships when they met. And the context muddies things even further - the world of writers and actors is not exactly an ordinary, everyday setting to which we can all relate, even if it is rather more interesting than the humdrum existence of we lesser mortals. Worth seeing to make up your own mind, especially if you're a Stoppard fan.
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
Michael Coveney for The Independent
"It gets richer with each viewing; and, even if Anna Mackmin's revival is not flawless, it deftly shows how Stoppard puts structural ingenuity to the service of emotional truth.."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The play is intimately concerned with language. Though that may make it sound overwhelmingly artful, it satisfies deeply as entertainment."
Henry Hitchings's for The Evening Standard
"For the performances of Mr [Toby]Stephens and Miss [Hattie] Morahan alone, this over-complex tale is worth seeing."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"It’s a glorious play, in which Stoppard’s wit and intellectual rigour is warmed by the glow of romance."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph