In Tom Stoppard‘s play set in 1982, playwright Henry’s relationships echo his latest production in the pleasing confusion of scene one. What is the truth of the wife’s actions? Is his love the real thing? Are her actions the real thing? Why is Henry afraid of appearing without classical taste when choosing his collection for Desert Island Discs? Here, does art imitate life or vice versa?
Laurence Fox plays Henry, the playwright, with surprising flexibility (after the televisual stiffness of DS Hathaway in Lewis); almost louche in his long-limbed looseness. Fox’s Henry offers the type of comic curmudgeonliness normally blessed on men of at least ten years his senior (BBC Radio 4’s Ed Reardon). The cricket bat analogy is particularly well-delivered. For all his linguistic verbosity, Fox presents Henry as a sympathetic character albeit slightly out of time, a relic of the last century.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Annie is a dynamic and passionate character played with believable energy and force. The discarded first wife, Charlotte (Rebecca Johnson) is an older, cynical version, whilst Henry and Charlotte’s daughter Debbie (Venice van Someren) appears as Mk 3. None are in typically gendered roles, and in fact, Annie can be seen to be abusive towards first husband Max, but the three seem pretty much in the same ilk and still all beholden to Henry, or at least, Henry’s skills and money.
Out of the three male supporting actors – Adam Jackson-Smith as Max, Santino Smith as Brodie and Kit Young as Billy – it is Young’s brief appearance which proves most promising; a vital and compelling stage energy, though the others provide competent and amusing support as the emasculated ex-husband (Max fares better when delivering the sure words of Henry’s script) and the parochial (and generalised depiction of young Scottish male) ex-squaddie pet-project of Annie’s, Brodie.
In light of recent sexual allegations against men in positions of power, notably in the entertainment industry, a few moments arise but pass briefly without further exploration; that Charlotte is unhappy with the underdevelopment of her character in his play (Henry uses it instead to parade his wit), that there is a hint that Henry may have had sex with Annie, when Annie was self-medicating with mogadon, and the questionable yet dismissed actions of the oft-mentioned director. Given the play’s theme of questioning truth, these moments are quietly discomforting.
Set and costume design (by Jonathan Fensom) is oddly clashing. The set is satisfyingly retro (complete with a bit of door-frame falling off in the first scene), yet the characters are dressed in a contemporary manner. Is this the designer’s attempt to merge the gap between the production’s origin and this revival? It feels awkward.
In the play, Henry suggests that all art is subjective, and success depends upon the right “experts” deeming the piece art. Stoppard crafted an insightful, poignant and debate-raising piece of theatre 30 years ago; Stephen Unwin now directs a bittersweet yet warming revival, in exposing the effects of patriarchy on both men and women alike through the characters’ interaction with the god-like, yet apparently vulnerable, Henry, and yet not losing the basic theme of finding and keeping true love. Stoppard himself remains the expert as playwright.