Unreachable, review of Matt Smith at the Royal Court Theatre
A hilarious satirical portrait of the challenges of film-making and a metaphorical journey about obsession.
A friend who saw Unreachable just three nights before its official opening sent me an e-mail describing what he had seen as "unwatchable", saying that the cast "all carried scripts throughout and often had to prompt each other and read chunks from the scripts. It felt more like an early stage workshop at times or a rehearsal rather than a preview where a play just needs a few final tweaks depending on audience reaction. It was beyond unpolished."
Yet, by some kind of theatrical alchemy or miracle, what I saw on opening night was not only cogent but also utterly compelling. But then the playwright Anthony Neilson, who writes the play during six weeks of rehearsals with the cast and simultaneously directs it, has a white-knuckle creative process: he continuously writes and re-writes up to the day of the opening. I recently interviewed him hours before the first preview, and he told me, "I don't know if we've got [a play] yet, I genuinely don't. But we do have a continuous sequence of things they can play today."
And he added: "For me the opening night is when I expect to see something I would be happy to put out there into the world. Up to then, it is a desperate struggle to get it on."
That creative struggle somewhat matches the one being fought by simultaneously deeply narcissistic and self-destructive young film director called Maxim to complete his latest film Child of Ashes. First he insists that real film be used instead of digital technology, requiring filming to be delayed and re-financing sought for the extra expenditure it will need. But more importantly, he is also determined to catch what he deems to be the perfect light to illuminate it. As played by Matt Smith -- returning to the London stage for the first time since he played a different kind of murderous narcissist in American Psycho at the Almeida -- he is a moodily annoying film geek, who induces frustration as well as exuding it.
His battles with his long-suffering film producer Anastasia (Amanda Drew) and his cinematographer Carl (Richard Pyros) -- themselves conducting a clandestine sexual tryst -- fuel the action; but the comedy becomes truly explosive with the arrival of the flamboyantly difficult Ivan (nicknamed 'The Brute') as a new star for the movie, whom Jonjo O'Neill imbues with charisma, edge and danger, all at once.
There are times when it threatens to tip over into farce, but Neilson keeps a tight reign on the action and it emerges as both a hilarious satirical portrait of the challenges of film-making and a metaphorical journey about obsession.
What the Press Said...
"But although Neilson's play effectively makes the point that the movie business is a madhouse, it suffers from allowing one particular lunatic to take over the asylum."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The most arresting thing on Chloe Lamford's drab, stripped-back set is a blond-wigged Jonjo O'Neill, who is often dazzlingly funny as Ivan but can't blind us to the fact that this self-fancying lothario capsizes the play and proves it to be an empty vessel too."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"It's funny; it's unbalanced by the egregious Ivan; it has yet to come together; and it feels oddly inconsequential."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Packed with cracking one-liners and bursts of outrageous slapstick."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
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