One of the great true-isms is that those in the industry love work based in their own little bubble. This year La La Land was garlanded for its tale of romance and jazz clubs set in Hollywood. In theatre one only needs to think The Producers, Noises Off, 42nd Street and A Chorus Line. Massive hits, with plots set backstage (and onstage) in the creation of theatre. Yet the success of these works lies in the ‘making’, the rehearsals and blood, sweat and tears that make the work. They are fundamentally about ‘action’. When a play is concerned purely with the writing of a play, it comes up against a large road block Here the action is contained only in debate. Tom Stoppard solved this problem in The Real Thing using the smart conceit of plays within plays. Here there is only brief touches of fantasy.
Laurence Boswell’s production is constantly entertaining and sculpted of the highest sheen, but the work feels light. As someone who feels nothing but mediocre when sat at a keyboard, it’s easy to nod in recognition at some of the fear of the writer hidden behind grandstanding rhetoric but its overall stakes feel low. Martin (Daniel Weyman) and his wife Gina (Naomi Frederick) have travelled to a dilapidated villa somewhere in Germany for five days of mentoring by legendary playwright Benjamin Rudin. Portrayed in something of a coup for the Ustinov by F Murray Abraham he is a writer trapped in the past, feted for his first work at the age of twenty four and never been able to top it since. It’s hard not to think that German literary star Daniel Kehlman, also covered in accolades young, has certain fears he wishes to wrestle with here.
The feedback starts with asinine comments on misplaced apostrophes but soon he admits he hates the play: or does he? Is Martin’s play a work with nothing useful to say, with no voice to claim as its own, or is it a form of sabotage,; one older writer scared to step away and pass the buck to a new generation? The answer is never decisively given, though there is a heavy lean towards sides when Gina focuses her own lit crit. on the play. None of these three characters are particularly likeable but worse they are not overly interesting either, Martin is too trapped in his own ego to begin objectively looking at whether his work is any good or not and to immature to tackle his own relationship problems, while Gina, portrayed as a sophisticated clear-headed intellectual, seems to fluster to easily to a writer who she worshipped as a schoolgirl. Meanwhile Abraham always plays Rudin with a twinkling charm but can’t alter the fact that he comes across as a bit of an egomaniacal b*stard and never fully gets to grip with whether he was a genius who then was unfairly shunned or simply a hack who got lucky. He is a terrific actor but there are mannerisms to his performance here that go along with the charisma that is the mark of a strong stage beast.
So it winds up being Jonathan Cullen’s Erwin who becomes the beating heart of this production. An administrator at the trust fund that has set up this tete-a-tete together he is believably flustered as a man who sees his life drifting into mediocrity arranging conferences and handing out awards. Cullen, so fantastic last year as the director in Trouble In Mind is even better here, a frustrated artist who paints moods and dreams of doing something more worthwhile with his life.
His choice of attire for this summer rendezvous is just as classy as the production around it. From Christopher Hampton’s slick translation to Polly Graham’s luxurious European bolt hole of a design lit in warm hues by Colin Greenfell, it proves that no theatre does style better in the South West than the Ustinov. Yet while the play is a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend ninety minutes it is unlikely to find its way onto any school reading lists in years to come like the fictional play at the heart of this work.