THE REAL THING at Bath Theatre Royal

The play starts with a double dose of fiction – a fiction within a fiction; a fictional couple conjured up by a fictional writer whose fictional wife plays the fictional wife of…well you get the idea. All the signposts tell us we are in Stoppard territory.  The fictional#2 husband, played by the fictional Max (Adam Jackson-Smith) is occupying a knoll of moral high ground having discovered his wife’s supposed infidelity and from this vantage point coolly delivers some verbal leading left jabs as he shoves her around the cockpit that is marital breakup.  This presages the infidelity of Henry, the writer, (Laurence Fox) whose own marriage to Charlotte (Rebecca Johnson) an actress who plays Max’s wife, is about to be wrecked on the rock of Annie, also an actress and married to Max. For Henry this new love affair is the real thing.

The languid Henry contrasts with a peart Annie (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) the latter all loose limbed and emotionally open. She is in a kind of liberated social freefall where she is prepared to go with her feelings and see what happens rather than tread warily as does the careful, analytical writer.  Annie gets found out first, leading to the breakup of both marriages and the eventual union between her and Henry.

From here the slightly anodyne marital breakup of Henry’s literary imagination, in which divorce is cauterised and life goes smoothly on, is tested against the real thing, which, in reality, is far more excoriating. For Henry the problem is a question of whether expressions of love are enough for a jealous mind – his suspicion having been aroused concerning Annie and her co-star Billy (Kit Young).

This is a thirty year-old play, but Stoppard’s exploration of the moral and social landscape of trust, deception, love and divorce has lost none of its interest or relevance.  Is resignation to ‘Dignified cuckoldry’ the best response to a broken ‘modern marriage? Should we demand more or should there be, ‘No commitments only bargains’, as Charlotte suggests?  Mr Fox is at his best when animated to ponder these questions.  His character gets into top gear when talking about writing and the importance of words and their meanings. One senses his stride lengthening as he disposes of the second rate writing of political activist, Brodie (Santino Smith) the author of the play in which Annie and Billy meet. ‘The right words nudge the world a little’ he says.  What is true of writing could also be said of relationships.  Love is heady, vertiginous, ‘Happiness is equilibrium’, he says. Sometimes love just isn’t enough and the right words are needed, but saying the right thing depends on what we know, yet too often in these situations, ‘Knowlege is the undealt card’.

This is vintage Stoppard with all the trademark wordplay, philosophising, clever plotting and complex characters. Fans of the playwright will not want to miss it.    ★★★☆☆    Graham Wyles   20th September 2017