On the last major London revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, in 1999, the consensus was that it had aged well since it was written in 1982. Anna Mackmin’s new production – through no fault of hers or the cast’s – suggests rather the opposite.
The “adultery in NW3” play has declined first into cliché 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. Since it is by Stoppard it is, of course, about art, politics and personal commitment as much as the heart and, since it is by Stoppard, all these matters are articulated masterfully – and pretty much non-stop through the second half. The music conducts a debate of its own as to whether or not pop can express the same emotional depth as classical music. (It can, but not if you use an inferior re-recording of The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron”.) But the play still feels more like an exercise than the self-exposure on Stoppard’s part that it seemed to be at the time.
As an actor, Toby Stephens has often appeared to be a consummate technician but one who never let us get under 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 words and ideas, although this may be a carapace built over his too-thin romantic skin.
In comparison, Hattie Morahan’s Annie (with whom Henry is in love) is a thrillingly sensitive creature, gradually discarding the early self-conscious giggles that mask her uncertainty as she and Henry begin to grapple with issues in their own lives. Barnaby Kay (as Max) and Fenella Woolgar (as Charlotte) play the lovers’ abandoned spouses with style and vigour, while Mackmin’s production is as polished and intelligent as good Stoppard demands.