This new play by Nicholas Wright, directed by the National's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, boasts Antony Sher in the lead. That kind of creative formula might seem to be the catalyst for another winning combination for the National, but overall the show fails to rise to the occasion, and the lasting impression is of a lightweight play that is mildly entertaining, but not very much else.
The action mostly takes place in a shtetl (a small town or village, with a mostly Jewish population) in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. A young man, Motl Mendl, returns from America to the shtetl of his birth after the death of his father to sort out his affairs. When he is about to leave, he discovers a Lumière Cinématographe camera which is used to both capture and project moving images. This galvanises the young man into considering a future as a filmmaker, and he immediately starts packing-up the camera to leave for America. However, when timber-merchant Jacob Bindel (Antony Sher) turns up he persuades Motl to stay in the village to make films and offers to fund the project. Motl reluctantly agrees and before long he and the villagers are busy committing the activities of the community to celluloid.
Antony Sher's Jacob is a disappointingly stereotypical characterisation which lacks real depth or layering and invention. Even given that Jacob is illiterate, he is meant to be a man who has suffered considerable hardships and misfortunes. Nevertheless, he has overcome these and built a successful business as well as a reputation in the community. That shows a character of considerable inner strength, yet we never see this in Mr Sher's performance. Damien Moloney as Motl ably demonstrates the director's frustration when confronted with interference from the producer, but never convinced me of his real passion for the medium.
In the production department, Jon Driscoll's projections help us to see the results of Motl's movie-making endeavours, and Grant Olding's haunting music gives the play some much-needed substance as well as appropriate atmosphere. And Bob Crowley's set is evocatively detailed.
The intention of 'Travelling Light' is, I assume, to illuminate how Jewish people were instrumental in the development of silent films, including the creation of a whole new vocabulary for telling stories via the medium. But even if there were people making films in small villages back in the early part of the last century, it nevertheless seems an odd setting. More importantly and rather irritatingly, the villagers suddenly invent terms such as 'close-up' almost out of thin air, as if the audience needed to hear exact phrases from current film parlance in order to be able to make the connection - a case, I think, of undervaluing the intellectual capacity of the audience. There are also some overly long scenes which seem to be stretched out unnecessarily, and the overall effect is one of mild disappointment.
"The show is often inventive and amusing."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"Great subject matter but the play- and the production - fail to rise to their own piquant occasion."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"It is Antony Sher who steals the honours as the ebullient Jacob."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The adjective ‘cheesy’ is insufficient for the new play at the Royal National Theatre. It may star Sir Antony Sher.
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail