Monday, 6 October 2014

Theatre review: Seminar

The publicity image for Seminar shows Roger Allam throwing sheets of papers into the air, leading some people I know to be disappointed when more cast were announced, as they'd been hoping for two hours of Allam throwing paper around. Personally I was glad - after all, he needs someone to chuck the paper at. Of course, the throwing is (mostly) metaphorical, as Theresa Rebeck's play is about the ambitions, pretensions and easily bruised egos of aspiring writers. Allam plays Leonard, at one time a respected novelist, but nowadays better known as a talented and influential editor of other people's work. As a nice little earner on the side he holds exclusive writing courses, tearing into the efforts of the most promising new writers who can afford him - or go into debt to get him. Martin (Bryan Dick,) Douglas (Oliver Hembrough,) Izzy (Rebecca Grant) and Kate (Charity Wakefield,) whose vast flat they meet in, are in for the 10-week course.

Although it's sold on Allam, for the most part Seminar isn't Leonard's story but that of his students, especially Martin and Kate, who's been his friend since school and nursing an obvious crush on him pretty much the whole time. He, though, is more interested in the nork-flashing Izzy.

She in turn may have an eye for the preppy, comically pretentious Douglas, or will she in fact go for the full cliché of sleeping with their teacher? These personal sagas keep the story going but Rebeck's play is really about writing, and though it has some interesting things to say one of its flaws is a tendency for the playwright's conclusions about her profession to end up almost as self-aggrandizing as her characters'. It's not the only flaw in a play ripe for nit-picking: Leonard seems to (correctly) judge everyone's work on the basis of a couple of pages at most. Obnoxious genius he may be, but the entire course seems to have been designed around him barely glancing at the work he critiques. And a major plot revelation could surely only be a surprise to the students if we assume the internet doesn't exist.

For the first half at least, Leonard is actually used pretty sparingly, Allam essentially turning up like a grumpy whirlwind to lay into one of the students' writing before leaving them all to pick up the pieces. It's quite late on in the second act, when the set goes through a major transformation (as Lez Brotherston's designs are wont to do) to take us to his own apartment, that we get a bit more insight into him.

Terry Johnston's straightforward production doesn't do much to suggest the play itself is a great one - it's entertaining but having a character call the action out for being soap-like doesn't stop it from being a soap opera. Its strength is in the performances - Allam is actually comparatively restrained in a role that could have been full-on comic monster (Alan Rickman originated the role on Broadway so I imagine getting the teeth marks out of the set would have been a daily struggle.) But Dick is also good at trying to make sense of a character whose actions are constantly contradictory, and Wakefield is sympathetic, the fact that she can pull off playing "the plain one" something of an acting feat in itself.

Seminar by Theresa Rebeck is booking until the 1st of November at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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