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Travelling Light, Lyttelton, NT, London


Nicholas Wright is one of my favourite dramatists.  I love the way that he can take vastly heterogeneous subject matter - from Melanie Klein to Vincent Van Gogh, from James Mossman to Terence Rattigan and Nijinsky -- and excavate acutely fresh and sharply researched plays that nonetheless have very distinctive finger marks on them. This reminds me a little of the relationship between Simon Russell Beale and his roles. It is furthermore wonderful that, at seventy one, Wright seems to be more productive than ever.  So how to account for the mis-step that is his latest play, Travelling Light, premiered now at the Lyttelton in a nothing-if-not-charming production by Nicholas Hytner.

The best thing about the show, in my opinion, is the brilliantly punning title which makes me shiver with delight each time I ponder it.  It beautifully blends the idea of emigration and of cinematography, bringing out the projection-room shimmer in the phrase.

Departing from his customary practice of dealing with real-folk, Wright has written a piece that would seem to have been inspired by the fact that so many Hollywood luminaries were East European Jewish emigres. His leading character here has certain affinities with Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch.

Successful movie director Maurice Montgomery (Paul Jesson) looks back from Thirties Hollywood at his younger days in a shtetl when, as an artistic photographer who went by the name of Motl Mendl (Damien Molony) he discovered, on returning to his remote village, that his deceased father had bought an 1896 Lumiere Brothers cinematograph.  A wealthy local timber merchant (played by Antony Sher who seems to be auditioning for The Life of Topol ) becomes as crazed as Mendl about this new way of telling stories. All the world's a film set, or becomes so.

Because of the arbitrary radiance of her face on screen, Mendl's nubile assistant become his star. He stumbles upon new editing technique. The village becomes Los Angeles avant la lettre.

Great subject matter but the play -- and the production --- fail to rise to their own piquant occasion. The ironies are handled with a limp obviousness (you couldn't cite this piece in the same breath as, say, Christopher Hampton's play about emigres on the west coast, Tales from Hollywood). Though the Lyttelton is more like a cinema than most theatres, the physical production is bafflingly duff. The twee shtetl skyline in Bob Crowley's design is so dinky and endearing that it makes Barbra Streisand's (rather brilliant) Yentl look like  Le Chagrin et La Pitie.

I kept thinking that I would like to see this subject explored in the Old Vic tunnels by Robert Lepage.