Life imitates art and artistic brushstrokes paint a picture of reality in the web of tangled relationships featured in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, currently on tour courtesy of the ever-excellent English Touring Theatre.
The accessible 1982 play has characters in search of an authoritative and genuine experience of love and friendship (and maybe art, morality, politics and truth too).
It’s a cleverly constructed piece with Stoppard teasing the audience with the difference between outward appearance, inward show and stark reality as scenes and characters from plays are blurred with the lives of a playwright, actors and friends.
This is surely one of the best productions of this durable play there has ever been - not a star vehicle for a well-known actor, which can unbalance the intention, but a beautifully directed (Kate Saxon) and designed (Simon
Higlett) version with a uniformly strong cast, who make the characters entirely believable and engaging.
The central character of playwright Henry is a thinly disguised autobiographical parallel for Stoppard, and Gerald Kyd gives him the right blend of pedantry, more concerned about the correct use of language than structuring a lasting relationship, and charm.
Like the play itself he has great wit and intellect, experiencing both the glow and pain of real love, and where previous actors have seemed snobbish in the role Kyd exudes a naivety and warmth that makes him almost lovable in his quest to discover the heart of true emotion, while realising his experience may be as out of date and lacking as his musical preferences.
Marianne Oldham discovers the sense of fun and vulnerability behind the tough actress Annie and you can quite understand how she could have fallen for three distinct artistic individuals in addition to championing the cause of an imprisoned activist.
There are good performances too from Simon Scardifield as Max, capturing perfectly the emotions of betrayed husband Max who discovers the ecstatic joy of “the real thing” while his friends are sobered by their own experience; Sarah Ball as resentful ex-wife Charlotte on her own journey of discovery; and Adam O’Brian as ardent and honest young actor Billy, a contrast with the cerebral and narcissistic playwright protagonist.
The scene changes, with revolving set and sliding panels, are so well done they have a beautifully choreographed quality of their own.
Whether any of the characters actually discover the truth behind the quest for the real thing by the end of the play - and a joy and strength of this production is that you are genuinely interested to know what might happen to them even after the curtain comes down on the final act - this is a great piece of theatre and, however painful the dissection of lives and emotions, it’s an all-round dazzling and heartfelt delight.