Tom Stoppard’s 1982 (some say autobiographical) play about Love, Relationships, Fidelity, Commitment and Betrayal, is here given a first-class outing in Marcus Whitfield’s directing debut in the intimate surroundings of Winchester’s Chesil Theatre.
On David Woodward’s simple and adaptable set, all grey walls, angular furniture and subdued lighting, we first meet Max (Jim Glaister) accusing his wife Charlotte (Sarah Andrews) of adultery at which point she leaves. But this is not real life; this is a scene from a new play written by Charlotte’s husband Henry (Steve Clark), inspired by his affair with Max’s wife Annie (Helen Symes). Meanwhile Annie, an activist, has taken up championing the cause of an imprisoned soldier Brodie, who was found guilty of setting fire to a wreath at The Cenotaph.
When Henry and Annie’s affair is revealed and they are living together, Henry is forced to write cheap television scripts to pay Charlotte’s alimony while also trying to write a play about his love for his new partner, though he finds it virtually impossible to put his true feelings for her into words on paper.
The play then jumps two years and, while Henry is asked to work on a (not very good) play written by the jailed Brodie (a ‘lout with language’ as Henry describes him), he is still struggling to create his play about his love for Annie, who in the meantime conducts an (apparently) platonic affair with Billy (Tez Cook), a fellow actor in the play Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Eventually, Annie admits to numerous casual affairs but commits to Henry that she really loves only him. Brodie hates the play that Henry has ghost-written for him (“half as long as Das Capital and only twice as funny”), and Annie, realising that he (Brodie) actually has nothing to offer, sends him on his way, having tipped a bowl of food over his head!
The company is on fine form throughout, particularly Steve Clark in the hugely demanding role of intellectual playwright Henry and Helen Symes as the enigmatic Annie, and their scenes together were enthralling. Credit to them, too, when the play had to be paused to allow an unwell member of the audience to be taken out of the theatre, after which they picked up exactly where they left off, as if nothing had happened.
They were more than ably supported by Jim Glaister as Max and Sarah Andrews as Henry’s first wife Charlotte, with Tez Cook creating the small but key role of actor Billy. A nice cameo late on came from Zoe Stanford as Henry and Charlotte’s daughter Debbie, eliciting some of the biggest laughs of the evening when talking about losing her virginity!
As always with Stoppard, smart words and abundant wit flowed unceasingly (accompanied by a perfectly chosen musical soundtrack of 60s and 70s hits), but at the very end perhaps we were all left asking ourselves “what is The Real Thing?”