Screw The Whale, Save The Gerund
The English Touring Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse collaborate in an electric, warmly-felt revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play The Real Thing.
In the opening scenes, grammatically pedantic playwright Henry tries to find the perfectly impressive selection of Desert Island records: a balance between quirky and pretentious snob, Pink Floyd and ‘a few sonatas’ perhaps? His genuine favourite (Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders) is, alas, too honest to be considered acceptable. To add to his worries, he has fallen head over heels for the wife of one of his actors, Annie.
The Real Thing is a hymn to the writer’s craft with Gerald Kyd’s Henry at the centre, defending his beloved ‘Eng sodding Lit’ with surgical wit, Ibsen intertext and, at one point, a cricket bat.
It is also, more broadly, an exploration of the insularity and peculiarity of passion. Sarah Ball, in a bitingly believable turn as the acerbic first wife Charlotte, snipes that Henry’s plays have moved adultery ‘out of the moral arena’ and into ‘a matter of style’. Such criticism is always a self-conscious possibility with any Stoppard drama and while The Real Thing is heart-breaking at its peak, there are points when one does wonder why Henry is philosophically deconstructing the coffee mug rather than hurling it in either rage, passion or semantic frustration: ‘I and he’ he corrects his daughter, Debbie, in a following act, ‘it sounds wrong, but it’s right’.
The chemistry between Kyd and Marianne Oldham, who plays Annie, is both cheeky and compelling –even during said coffee mug exchange. Oldham has a delightfully playful onstage presence, acting right down to a coquettish pointing of her toes; an inspired balance to Kyd’s studied intellectual intractability.
Henry the playwright fears his too-popular-to-be-cool music taste will leave him open to highbrow ridicule and complains that writing love is ‘embarrassing’. Stoppard the playwright in contrast, braves the critics and allows The Real Thing to wear its heart honestly. In the same vein, I too quite like ‘That Lovin’ Feeling’. Whoa whoa whoa.