When I first learnt that there was a new production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, which originally premiered in 1982, I was somewhat apprehensive. My only exposure to Stoppard was reading (unfortunately not watching) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at points forcing myself to push through the almost never-ending coin-tossing scenes. In a full and unabridged production, The York Settlement Community Players (YSCP) tackle one of Stoppard’s most complex plays, taking on a risk that more than pays off.
As director Jacob Ward admits in the director’s notes, previous productions of The Real Thing have been perplexing. Armed with a cast that demonstrably understands Stoppard’s vision, this production just works. The reveal in the second scene that the opening scene was actually a play within the play, titled House of Cards and written by Henry (Alan Park), is clear and satisfying. Through carefully delivered dialogue from all the cast, the potential for confusion as love affairs suggested in Henry’s play comes to life is averted. Instead, this adds to the meatiness of the play, questioning whether life imitates art. The final layer of the onion is the meta-play, or even an autobiographical work, as Henry laments that “love and being loved is so unliterary” – a knowing nod and wink as The Real Thing is Stoppard’s best expression of his own creative woes. The Real Thing showcases not only Stoppard’s wit but also his perceptive view of relationships, highlighting the challenges of monogamy and arguably the inevitability of infidelity in marriage. In a refreshing move, Ward’s forward-thinking production encourages queer love stories by changing two of the character’s character’s sexes.
Lasting 160 minutes (including a short interval), the momentum did flag slightly towards the end of the second half during the verbose, Stoppardian dialogues. Taking place two years after the first half, the introduction of new, younger characters, previously only mentioned in passing – the endearing Billie (brilliantly portrayed by The Scribe alumnus Rebecca Harrison) and Charlotte and Henry's radical daughter Debbie (Hannah Waring, dressed to the nines in an E-girl outfit) – provided some freshness and much needed levity, while by Livy Potter’s train conductor provided the biggest laugh of the night: an improvised “see it, say it, sorted”.
Nevertheless, I missed Mike Hickman’s nuanced and emotional performance of Max, which expressed great range and control. Hickman and his House of Cards co-star, Charlotte (Victoria Delaney) who was also confined to the first half, deserve special mentions for taking on the notoriously difficult task of playing an actor, especially when tasked with actually playing them acting. The way that both Hickman and Delaney differentiate between the two versions of their characters is a delight to watch. Billie and the head-strong Annie (boldly portrayed by Alice May Melton) also toy with this idea, performing lines from ‘Tis Pity She's a Whore as a means of flirtation (see cover photo), again bringing us back to the intertwined nature of life versus art. Lastly, Park held great stage presence as the increasingly pretentious Henry, delivering long monologues with unfailing energy (any minor slip-ups in the lines were saved well and came across as natural human speech). Nevertheless, I felt the character of Henry was more entertaining earlier on in the play, when he was in his Desert Island Discs era, so to speak (kudos to Neil Millar’s sound design for convincingly recording this). Towards the end of the play, Henry began to sound more and more like a broken record, but this ultimately reflects deficiencies in Stoppard’s script, not Park’s performance.
A final, completely unexpected highlight for me was the unorthodox approach to scene transitions. Instead of getting backstage people to dress up in all black, creating a strange sense of liminality as the audience can see they are not invisible but pretend they are, the full cast, in costume, helped to move the stage around. This became its own kind of choreography as the cast subtly danced along to the likes of Buddy Holly and The Monkees, a continuous call-back to Henry’s shameful love for “old pop songs” as he struggled to choose his eight tracks. I was especially mesmerised by the politics of moving the doorways and its complex right of way system. All this again reflects Ward’s novel approach to a play that, perhaps due to intimidation, has not been performed on the West End for decades.
The YSCP’s performance of The Real Thing demonstrates that, despite the grandiose set-up, there is no need for the trepidation that other theatre companies have clearly felt. Ward’s ambition, combined with a dedicated cast, results in a triumph: a completely unique and intellectually-stimulating evening.
The Real Thing continues its run at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday 11th to Saturday 15th April. Tickets are available here.