In the 20-odd months since its opening, Trafalgar Studios’ 100-seater second space has done a valuable job in offering noteworthy fringe productions a further lease of life in the geographical West End without absurdly inflating them to fit a full-size venue.

But no one’s programming is flawless and The Agent – first seen this year in the Old Red Lion pub theatre – is one of the less-warranted Trafalgar 2 transfers.

Stephen, an unprepossessing writer full of uncertainties about his abilities and his second novel in particular, visits his high-powered agent, Alexander, who tries to let him down easily; then the worm turns. In the course of little more than an hour, it turns a couple more times.

I have been criticised in a prominent playwright’s blog for being too eager to interpret a playscript as covert autobiography. But, given that this play’s author, Martin Wagner, is developing a screenplay called The Writer and is about to embark on another entitled The Reader, it is
hard to avoid the inference he is indulging in that stereotypical blight of literary fiction, writing about himself writing.

I don’t for a moment believe that Wagner is as nerdy as the novelist character here who, in actor Stephen Kennedy’s characterisation, is seldom either assured or even plugged-in enough to make eye contact with Alexander.

However, the script’s pretences to industry satire are fairly thin; whether or not Stephen is in control of events at any moment, he consistently holds all the moral cards, with the result that it feels like a fantasy in which recognition alternates between the writer’s acute insight and his noble martyrdom.

William Beck finds more vibrancy and naturalness in Alexander than Wagner has provided as he argues against a distinction between commercial success and quality and revels in “making the deal”. (Although an agent who namedrops Charles Bukowski would be likely to know how his name is pronounced.)

Lesley Manning’s production is well-dressed but offers little or no variation in pace until a climax in which the persistently ringing phone motif is overdone.

Yet this, too, is Wagner’s doing. As Alexander would say in my position, I think perhaps he might be better served by a different critic. ★★☆☆☆

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