Travelling Light, NT Lyttelton, London
Constellations, Royal Court Upstairs, London
Our New Girl, Bush, London

It's topical and has Nicholas Hytner at the helm– but a new play about the early days of cinema isn't silent, it's just dumb

The silent movie has certainly made a comeback, what with The Artist nominated for 12 Baftas, alongside its Golden Globe wins. And the National Theatre is impressively on the ball – or so one might suppose – as it gets 2012 rolling with Travelling Light.

Staged by Nicholas Hytner and written by Nicholas Wright, this new play – with dialogue – centres on a young man named Motl (Damien Molony), a pre-talkies filmmaker. We see his fledgling motion pictures flickering above the stage, in mock-vintage monochrome.

Basically, we're following this fictional pioneer's progress with an early cinematograph which has somehow turned up in his predominantly Jewish shtetl in the Pale of Settlement, circa 1900. As designed by Bob Crowley, this is a sanitised cluster of wooden huts, cutely twinkling in the dark.

Antony Sher's bearded Jacob is an illiterate timber merchant. With a wide-eyed enthusiasm for the silver screen, he's evidently meant to be sweet, funny and pushy – all characteristics writ large in Sher's performance. Jacob soon becomes Motl's financial backer, encouraging him to film the locals, organising screenings. Then Motl emigrates to become a Hollywood mogul (his older self played by Paul Jesson) who vaguely regrets abandoning his roots.

Travelling Light won't be garnering any awards, though. Watching the scenes where the rudiments of filmmaking dawn on Motl – assisted by his love interest and soon-to-be-leading actress Anna (Lauren O'Neil) – one may wonder if the NT has dumbed down beyond belief.

Gosh, Motl, I've had a brainwave! What is it, Anna? Get me some scissors, I've invented editing! But yikes, Motl, isn't it ironic that Jacob has started behaving like a stereotypical Hollywood producer – interfering on set, getting vox pops on the director's cut, wanting to sleep with the star ...? I confess, that's wanton paraphrasing, but Wright's dialogue is toe-curling and bizarrely jerky, underdeveloping relationships. Moreover, while Molony has no east European accent – just bland Received Pronunciation – Sher's Jacob sounds like Topol crossed with Tarzan ("I see bic light, bic sun, bic sky"). Schlock.

Constellations, by Nick Payne, plays far more arresting games with time. In this experimental two-hander – a darkening romantic comedy – Sally Hawkins's Marianne is a theoretical physicist who, on an early date, tries to explain the notion of a quantum multiverse – where all the choices you've ever (or never) made exist simultaneously in a vast ensemble of parallel universes.

What the playwright does is apply that to Marianne's on-off love affair with Rafe Spall's Roland, a mildly blokey bee-keeper. Radically disordering the linear narrative, their nervously jokey getting-together and their harrowed partings are played and replayed with numerous variations.

Maybe there could be fewer repeats, and we've had bees and string theory before in Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy (2001). However, Michael Longhurst's in-the-round production – on a bare, black stage under an eerie galaxy of white balloons – is taut and intensely touching. Hawkins and Spall spin on a sixpence between charming social comedy and heartbreaking tragedy, faced with which Marianne tries to comfort Roland, suggesting that, at the level of atoms, death really has no dominion: "We have all the time we've always had" – together in perpetuity.

In Our New Girl – another outstanding premiere – Kate Fleetwood's Hazel is heavily pregnant with her second child. She has quit her high-powered legal job to become a devoted mother and run a little deli business from home. This isn't going to plan, however, especially when a young nanny, Denise Gough's Annie, weirdly turns up on her doorstep and infuriatingly won't go away – insisting she's been hired by Hazel's husband, Richard.

Nancy Harris's drama, set in a gleaming designer kitchen, has sitcom moments but with a brewing sense of menace. Is Annie's morose child, Daniel, a delinquent in the making? Is she a hateful mother? Or is Mark Bazeley's Richard – a roving doctor more devoted to his charity work than his wife – conspiring with Annie to drive Hazel mad? One or two speeches sound stiff, but Charlotte Gwinner's cast are acutely unsettling, adding layers of subtle ambiguity, sexual tensions and nasty twists.

'Travelling Light' (020-7452 3000) to 6 Mar; 'Constellations' (020-7565 5000) to 11 Feb; 'Our New Girl' (020-8743 5050) to 11 Feb

Next Week

Kate Bassett attends the Trial of Ubu

Theatre Choice

As the seasonal shows start to wrap up, there's still plenty of time to catch the RSC's exuberantly funny Matilda – a family musical adapted from Roald Dahl, with songs by Tim Minchin. It's at London's Cambridge Theatre until 21 Oct. But make haste to see Mike Leigh's Grief, with Sam Kelly at the National Theatre, a quietly satirical then heartbreaking portrait of single parenting and teenage surliness, starring a superb Lesley Manville in 1950s suburbia (ends Sat).

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits