First staged in 1982 starring Felicity Kendal and Roger Rees, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing is a timeless, brilliantly conceived portrait of adultery, lust and jealousy, dappled with droll humour and home truths that may leave some of us reflecting long into the night. Often considered largely autobiographical due to Stoppard’s relationship with Kendal, he did in fact develop the plot before she accepted the role.
Directed by Stephen Unwin, everything about this Theatre Royal Bath, Cambridge Arts Theatre and Rose Theatre Kingston production is appealing, from the interchangeable furniture making easy work of myriad fresh scenes (Jonathan Fensom), to the eclectic music highlighting the protaganist’s curiously low-brow taste in bad pop songs, in stark contrast to his high-brow snobbery in the field of literature.
Never have I been more impressed by Laurence Fox (son of James Fox), who really comes into his own as the acclaimed, quick-witted playwright Henry and appears to be entirely at ease with the voluminous dialogue and the complexities of what is undoubtedly one of Stoppard’s finest achievements. Fox is well suited to Henry’s blend of charisma and geek; managing to make his show-off dialogue and repartee seem entirely natural.
We can see that Henry is extremely successful from the fact that he not only opens a bottle of Dom Perignon for his acting friends one Sunday, but is extravagant enough to make a Bucks Fizz with it. Yes, the charmingly smug Henry appears to be the man who has everything – but everything, as we all know, is rarely enough.
We first see his blisteringly astute actress wife, Charlotte (the superb Rebecca Johnson), performing in Henry’s latest West End hit about infidelity – cast as the wife cheating on her husband. But we aren’t to know we’re watching a play within a play until the second scene reveals all. It’s a wonderfully clever opening sequence, especially when reality so closely mirrors fiction, with one slight but significant change.
Henry has succumbed to an affair with Annie (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), the pretty young actress wife of Charlotte’s co-star, Max (Adam Jackson-Smith), but would the spark still be there it it wasn’t for the excitement of deception? Annie, believing Henry to be “the real thing” is keen to be caught out and stop the lies, yet Henry might be wise to note how careless she is of her husband’s feelings. Poor cuckolded Max has the humiliation of being the character he was recently cast as in Henry’s play, but Annie just finds his devastation annoying.
Fast forward to Henry and Annie’s married life together and the juxtaposition of The Real Thing is peeled away layer by layer, with the self-centred young wife becoming piqued when the trusting Henry doesn’t get jealous of her co-star, Billy (Kit Young) or her chance train encounter with Scottish army-runaway Brodie (Sabtino Smith). Naturally, it’s only when Annie has something to hide that she minds her husband’s interest in her movements. “There are no commitments, only bargains. And they have to be made again every day. You think making a commitment is it. Finish. You think it sets like a concrete platform and it’ll take any strain you want to put on it. You’re committed. You don’t have to prove anything. In fact you can afford a little neglect, indulge in a little bit of sarcasm here and there, isolate yourself when you want to. Underneath it’s concrete for life. I’m a cow in some ways, but you’re an idiot.”
It’s impossible to have sympathy for anyone, after all, it’s only right that what goes around comes around, and the wryness of Stoppard’s writing is hugely satisfying on many levels. Examining the boundaries of honesty in relationships, even Henry’s teenage daughter Debbie (Venice Van Someren) challenges him to reassess the absurdity of fidelity, and that sex is not the only form of betrayal but merely the definition created by society, a tedious state that goes entirely against the grain.
Sometimes you get a middling play elevated by an exceptional cast, and sometimes you get a great play let down by average players, but on this occasion the craft of play writing and acting are celebrated in beautiful unison. The stuff that standing ovations are made of, this tremendous production is bound to be heading to the West End soon – it’s most definitely the real thing.
The Real Thing at Theatre Royal Bath, Saw Close, Bath until 30th September 2017. For more information and tickets please visit the website. Production images by Edmond Terakopian.