by Nicholas Wright.
Lyttelton Theatre Upper Ground South Bank SE1 9PX In rep to 6 March.
then tour to 7 April 2012.
Runs 2hr 35min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 19 January.
Theatre about cinema that’s too much in love with its subject.
On a wall in an East European Jewish settlement, the rabbi conducts a service. Suddenly his image jerks into close-up and an (onstage) audience gasps. That’s the shock of the new medium of film around 1900, created by young local camera enthusiast Moti Mendl. As moving pictures develop into filmed stories he’s encouraged by two people. Bright, attractive servant Anna comes up with inventive ideas, while rich businessman Jacob offers funding and advice on settings and what audiences want.
And so the cinema is born. Anna invents editing, thereby turning the camera, recorder of truth, into a liar. Jacob assembles his family as a tryout audience, with a view to altering the film in response to their responses, while the idea of taking the film to people’s houses gives way to assembling spectators in a large room: a cinema.
Filled-out with plenty of well-acted local characters the story works through recognition, but lacks surprise. Nicholas Wright’s play recreates the excitement of a new art-form arising from a fascination with a technology. But its lumbered down by its frame, in which the young film pioneer, now re-named American success Maurice Montgomery, recounts events from the plump self-satisfaction of later life.
But what has he given up for this? How satisfying or compromising has Hollywood been for him? How has the early experience depicted in the action determined his future career? These are the moral issues that could give life to the story; instead there are repeated showings of the first faltering footsteps in celluloid and intriguing recreations of early projector technology (a flame lit inside the machine).
Wright’s play is often fascinating to watch, with Nicholas Hytner’s production and cast well-engineered, and Antony Sher’s wealthy Jacob moving in-and-out of certainty and submission; he’s an amateur but his authority goes with a practical creativity: a producer in the Irvin Thalberg mould. Sher provides the one surprising aspect of a production that, like so many products of the art-form it examines, ends up adding-up to less than the thrill of the chase.
The memory-play format has been used more energetically before – here it acts as a middle-aged brake on the enthusiasm of the young people, while the final tying-up of relationships in a later America is neither necessary nor convincing. It provides a feelgood aspect, though, in a play which, for all its incidental fascination, would be better for a touch more astringency.
Maurice Montgomery: Paul Jesson.
Tsippa: Sue Kelvin.
Moti Mendl/Nate Dershowitz: Damien Molony.
Jacob Bindel: Antony Sher.
Ida: Abigail McKern.
Aron: Jonathan Woolf.
Itzak: Karl Theobald.
Anna Mazowiecka: Lauren O’Neil.
Josef: Colin Haigh.
Hezzie: Darren Swift.
Mo: Mark Extance.
Rivka: Alexis Zegerman.
Little Boy: Nell McCann/Alexander Semple.
Ensemble: Tom Peters, Jill Stanford, Geoffrey Towers, Kate Webster.
Teacher: Tom Keller.
Rabbi: Harry Dickman.
Young Woman: Julia Korning.
Dying Man: Michael Grinter.
Reb Gershon: Jack Chissick.
Reb Horovitz: Jeffry Kaplow.
Doctor: Philip Cox.
Wife: Norma Atallah.
Servant: Jill Stanford.
Young Servant/Granddaughter: Elsie Mortimer.
Yeshiva Boys: Tom Allwinton, Roy Baron, Pablo Carciofa, Daniel Kramer, Henry Markham-Hare, Pip Pearce.
Director: Nicholas Hytner.
Designer: Bob Crowley.
Lighting: Bruno Poet.
Sound: Rich Walsh.
Music: Grant Olding.
Video/Projection: Jon Driscoll.
Costume: Vicky Mortimer.
Voice work: Kate Godfrey.
Dialect coach: Jeannette Nelson.
Associate projection: Gemma Carrington.