This is a playwright’s play – no doubt about it. But it is also a very accessible, touching and hilarious play about love, intellectual snobbery, and musical tastes. Some of Stoppard’s work has a tendency of going right over my head, but definitely not this one. Anna Mackmin’s production is one of the best things I have seen for ages.
Henry is the playwright, who is probably as close to the character of Stoppard himself as he is likely to write. Toby Stephen’s is absolutely brilliant as the successful dramatist who is trying to decide which records to pick for his forthcoming ‘Desert Island Discs’ appearance. He wants to pick classical choices that will show him as an intellectual heavyweight and cultured person, but the trouble is that he really loves things likes the hits of Neil Sedaka and the Righteous Brothers. Stephens’ acting is so skillful and nuanced that you totally forget that he is playing a part – one of the best individual performances I have seen for a long while.
He is struggling in his marriage and having an affair with Annie an actress. But part of his problem is that he is incapable of showing or expressing in his writing, any real emotion about love. This is the case, even when he and Annie are together, having left their respective partners to be with each other.
There is quite a lot of ‘play within a play’ action but Stoppard’s clever writing makes the plot relatively easy to keep up with for most of the time. Henry has firm views, that he is eager to express at any opportunity, about what constitutes good writing and proper use of the English language. He cannot help but be patronising to his wife and then to Annie about this. He does not really mean to alienate those around him – but nevertheless succeeds in doing so continually, albeit in a very charming way.
Hattie Morahan and Fenella Woolgar are also worthy of a mention for their good performances as the wronged wife, and Annie respectively. But it is Toby Stephens who shines, as he brings this tremendous Stoppard character to life so brilliantly and convincingly.