The Real Thing, Bristol Old Vic, Bristol

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In the past theatre critics have tended to focus on the more tangential aspects of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. This is hardly surprising, since it contains some punchy speeches about the meaning of (good) writing and the role of the writer. For those who spend too much of their lives scribbling in notebooks in darkened auditoria, any discussion of words and theatre is going to gain a magnified importance. However, for the ordinary theatregoer who is not riveted by the esoterica of all things theatrical, The Real Thing is primarily a play about love.

The central character, Henry (Neil Pearson) is a playwright. He is also a romantic, a man who has a strong belief in what constitutes love: faithfulness, trust, total immersion in "the real thing". Confronted with both a first and a second wife who have a different view about what makes relationships tick and the importance of fidelity, he is reduced to striving for dignified cuckoldry. In the end love strips all of us of our dignity and our sophistication, and so the curtain could comfortably fall on Henry's anguished cry of "please don't" after Annie (Geraldine Alexander) has gone off to see her lover once again, eliminating the final scene with its suggestion of a tolerable modus vivendi.

While this would lend a gratifying emotional bleakness to the piece, it would erase the final conclusion in Stoppard's dissertation on love, an intellectual exercise which does not strive for empathy, but for edification. There is a sense that the characters are merely being used to illustrate hypotheses, walking embodiments of conflicting propositions. The female characters are all as beguiling, amoral and blindly lacerating as an Evelyn Waugh heroine, and slightly two-dimensional as a result. This does not help create any sense of electricity between Henry and Annie. Love may be hard to write about, as Henry claims, but it is also hard to act.

Alexander's performance is too mannered, too theatrical, and Pearson's too polished to truly suggest a passionate fire raging between them. Nonetheless, Pearson is beautifully cast as Henry, since he does quick-witted charm very well, but also has a firm grasp on sincerity and anguish. His recent TV performance as John Diamond in A Lump in My Throat showed that his light touch and deadpan delivery are an excellent medium for communicating that uniquely British concoction of emotional turmoil simmering below a crust of eloquent wit.

It's his performance that comes closest to tempting the audience to become emotionally involved and empathise. Ultimately, however, one is left with the sense that the characters we have been watching are really lab rats in Dr Stoppard's loquacious laboratory of emotion. As a result, The Real Thing ends up offering food for the intellect rather than the soul.

To 29 September, 0117-987 7877, then touring

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