Review: Matt Smith Stars in Unreachable, Royal Court Theatre

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OK, where to begin…

This play was always going to be a risky venture, wasn’t it? A play that didn’t actually exist when it was commissioned but, instead, would be created in the rehearsal room. Only this play from creator / director Anthony Neilson wasn’t actually finished in said rehearsal room and early previews saw reports of walkouts, demands for refunds, actors using scripts on stage and often having to prompt each other.

Well there was certainly little of that when I visited – the scripts had gone and the actors knew their lines (though a few in the audience did not return after the interval) but that does not mean that this show was problem-free.

Not at all.

This show has a lot of problems. And the fundamental one is simple – this isn’t a play. It’s not a play. There is no plot arc, no character development, and no overarching theme or themes that would make this a cohesive piece of work.

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So what is about?

Well, it is situated on a film set. Matt Smith is playing a director who is making life awkwardly difficult for his producer (Genevieve Barr) and his Director of Photography (Richard Pyros) by halting production as the lighting isn’t right. Ever. And he wants to shoot it all on film. Forget the computers, HE WANTS FILM! He’s basically having a temper tantrum. So what follows is, well, it’s just a push to get the film done.

That’s it.

Not high stakes stuff, huh? And there’s nothing deeper going on here. There is nothing underneath the surface.

The characters are more like caricatures. They fit casual stereotypes – primadonna director, unbelievably difficult star actor, bitchy ball-breaker female producer – with no nuance or depth to speak of. And, much like a sketch show, their purpose seems to be to mine the clichés ever deeper just to generate laughs with bouts of physical comedy and biting one-liners rather than actually, you know, moving either the story or their own character journey along.

In fact, it would be fair to say that this is little more than a sketch show. In fact, at times it actually feels like we’re still in an improv session back in the rehearsal room with actors throwing painfully clunky dialogue filled with awkward exposition at each other (“But you’ve just won a Palme d’Or” and eye-rolling references to growing up without a mother) and then backing it up with plenty of rolling on the floor and giggles. (It really is annoying when the actors ‘break character’ and laugh along with each other’s jokes.)

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But that’s not to say that this is unendurable. This isn’t a rehashing of the dire 2071 climate change lecture from 2014 in the very same theatre, which wasn’t a play either. There are moments when this is very funny and the actors work really hard, most notably Jonjo O’Neill and Matt Smith, as the precious star actor and his director respectively.

And certainly many in the audience were rolling in the aisles when I went. The farcical level of humour really worked for some.

But these are just moments and eventually the play (as it is) has to wrap itself up in some way, shoehorning in both a dramatic climax that isn’t believable, and a spectacularly staged finale that is not earned.

Simply, it’s a frustrating evening. There is a lot of talent wrapped up in this production but the show is unfulfilling. It’s not awful, it’s just, you know, not a play.

Royal Court Theatre, London to August 6, 2016
Tickets from £10.

Images by Matt Humphrey.

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