The Real Thing

Tom Stoppard
Osip Theatre
Tabard Theatre
(2009)

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Bad writing is a plank of wood and when woody planks smack words the words flop forward ten feet. Tom Stoppard writes with a cricket bat: springy willow launches words out of the ground.

The meshing of carpentry and linguistics is just one of Stoppard's tricks: vegetables are offered vases; adulterers whisper I love you in the presence of the cheated; love and art are put on trial and spanked. The ceremony of it all is compelling.

Like a wedding cake, the play stacks layers of drama, conceit and artifice upon one another until the roof buckles. The result: art and love's relationship with reality is denuded, rubbed down with sandpaper and then put in a fish-tank. I pressed my nose to the tank's glass, and was left scratching my head interminably.

Annie (played with ease and poise by Lily Bevan), having ditched the awkwardly reticent Max for the dashing candour of playwright Henry, complains that being on the right end of unrequited love is an uninteresting and irritating tedium. The pain of her ex-lover bores her. It is an excellently cold and, if I can brave such a term, authentic depiction of a relationship's aftermath. As one hurts, the other exults.

Osip Theatre do a fine job of mediating this dense and configured play without impeding its intelligence. Fresh off the back of highly popular Xmas-farce Stephen and the Sexy Partridge, the company have again expertly weaved seriousness with light-heartedness. If available, I would take an Osip season ticket right now.

The Real Thing is an unreal parade of cuckolds, coquettes and compromise. Yet it is not only hearts that compete and strain - intertextual jostling is rife. Othello's handkerchief again betrays; Strindberg's Miss Julie, a play known as an exemplar of naturalism, makes an ironically stuck-on appearance; Henry's latest play is the aptly fragile A House of Cards; Classical music is accused of ripping-off pop. The dramatic terrain thus created is a lasagne of texts and fabrications; where distinctions and exclusivity are blurred by cheese sauce.

Art is imprisoned by other art - it is its own gaoler.

As Annie skips through men, and Henry skips though plays, something clear yet perplexing is said about authenticity - art and love are fakes and words are their handcuffs. And in this kingdom of the inauthentic, infidelity reigns. The only hope for lovers and artists, it would appear, is to accept that there is no such thing as the real thing and then run around wildly in the sunlight of reality's demise.

The mise-en-scène is a 70's living room minimally furnished. Dividing screens line the rear and suggest the frailty of distinction. The sofa is pale salmon and looks like a Maths problem. The lipstick-red phone shouts of Batman. The lamp-shade is wider than most people. The design has a contrived and garish feel that fits neatly with the play's hints about the intrinsic artifice of the material and literal world.

The scene changes are occasionally clunky and lack imagination: using the same sofa to convey six different locations is a lot to ask from a suite. The acting and casting is fine save for Henry's daughter Debbie, who seemed extraneous and miscast. Yet, as Stoppard might contend, is all art not extraneous? No. Debbie was extraneous and miscast.

Stoppard, through his fictional plaything Henry, suggests that the limit of art is to nudge perceptions in the right direction. A lesser company may have bodged this. Osip Theatre do not. I was sincerely nudged, and I urge you to be nudged too.

Until 14th February.

Reviewer: Ben Aitken