Seminar**** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: October 2, 2014 in Theatre

seminarThere is something warmly satisfying about seeing a character actor, who has given immeasurable pleasure in quality productions over the years, finally being elevated to name-above-the-title status. Bill Nighy was an example and now Roger Allam has established himself firmly alongside him. Theresa Rebeck’s play is the sort of semi-intellectual froth that American audiences seem to lap up, but Allam stands astride it like a giant. He plays Leonard, a writer, editor and tutor for aspiring novelists. Paid an exorbitant fee, he takes under his wing four young writers and, in between trips to Somalia, fronts a series of seminars, mostly devoted to dumping heaps of destructive criticism all over their efforts. Kate (Charity Wakefield), a Kerouac-hating feminist, acts as hostess in her dad’s large apartment on New York’s Upper West Side (beautifully realised in Lez Brotherston’s set) and she is the first victim of Leonard’s bilious onslaughts. Next up is Douglas (Oliver Hembrough), who uses long words to mask the fact that he is talking complete rubbish; advising him that his work is hollow, Leonard tells him that he will find a lucrative career in Hollywood. He is kinder to the nymphomaniac Izzy (Rebecca Grant), paving the way to bedding her, but has to reserve judgement on the diffident, hotheaded Martin (Bryan Dick) when he refuses to show his work. Allam revels in playing a monster; his world weary demeanour and sardonic delivery are a joy from start to finish, papering over many of the cracks in the script. Rebeck dissects the modern literary world and charts the shifting relationships between her five characters, but inconsistencies in her arguments and her characterisations abound, credibility often becoming stretched. At least once too often, one character reads about half a page of another’s work and declares it to be “a great novel” or some such. It is tempting to suggest that Rebeck could be the real life equivalent of Douglas, except that her target is Broadway rather than Hollywood; and guidance from a Leonard figure could possibly have taught her how to round off a story rather more convincingly than in this play’s clumsy final scene. Nonetheless, her dialogue often crackles, Terry Johnson’s light-touch direction always ensures that we never take things too seriously and Allam spearheads a quintet of sparkling performances. In the end, despite the play’s flaws, this production provides just about as much good light entertainment as anything currently running in London.

Performance date: 2 October 2014

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