Wednesday, February 29, 2012


National Theatre
at the Lyttleton Theatre


Nicholas Wright's play is a saccharine fairy-tale; it magically imagines the birth of cinema in a shtetl in Eastern Europe [not far from Anatevka, one might suppose]. All the archetypes are in place – the interfering producer [Antony Sher genial in a beard, his broken English reminding us, as The Artist does, that early cinema had no need of words], critics, zoom, dramatic montage, and the travelling shot which gives the play its name.

A childish, innocent fantasy, which involves improbable coincidences, an infant Heifitz, a sudden impulse to take the express train at dawn, destination Hollywood. "Absurdly shmaltzy". All the more disconcerting, then, when we suddenly have an unwanted pregnancy, and an angry-young-man kitchen-sink moment in the middle of Act Two.

A beautiful set – wide and shallow – which ingeniously becomes a studio lot in a promising device which is not fully developed. And everything one would expect of a Hytner show, save only the quality of the text itself. Loads of performances to match the great Sher – Damien Molony as young cineaste Motl, with Paul Jesson moving as his older self, rebranded as Maurice Montgomery. Lauren O'Neil was excellent as his Trilby, the silent movie star he leaves behind in the shtetl.

Some nice use of film footage, too, whether the early documentary stuff or the later feature film, its plot collectively brainstormed in one of the play's stronger scenes. But this cheesy melodrama could hardly be more far-fetched than Wright's play: an unlikely tribute to the birth of the movies and the diaspora that provided their creative force.

from my seat at the back of the stalls, opening Act II

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