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Theatre: If it's sex you're after, then David Leveaux is your man

The Real Thing Donmar Warehouse, London Money Olivier, London The Death of Cool Hampstead, London

Robert Butler
Sunday 06 June 1999 00:02 BST

One of the hardest tricks in theatre is to get actors to hold each other close, kiss and caress without the audience squirming in their seats at the clunkiness of it all. Very few directors can pull this off. David Leveaux is one.

Nine years ago, he directed a production of Therese Raquin with Joanne Pearce as Therese and Neil Pearson as Laurent, which was so steamy the stage managers referred to it as "When Terry and Larry Get Laid". With his revival of Tom Stoppard's 1982 play, The Real Thing, Leveaux reasserts his claim to be the theatre's leading director of nookie. Seeing this production at the Donmar, it's impossible not to think what he might have achieved with Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room.

Leveaux has cast this revival very cleverly with two enormously attractive actors in the leads. As Henry, the wispy, pedagogic playwright, Stephen Dillane is perfect because he can act intelligence naturally. He convinces us that there's no line that Stoppard could come up with that mightn't have occurred to him on his own. His eyes dart, his eyebrows arch, his fingers tug at his ear lobes. This underlying alertness provides the springboard for the early badinage. He also knows quickness doesn't mean speed and leaves a wonderful yawning gap before responding with the funniest line of the evening. His restlessness gradually metamorphoses into something injured, reflective and profound.

This review can hardly do justice to Jennifer Ehle's physical appeal. Somone will need to write her a sonnet. But her luminous performance is fascinating for the way it walks a tightrope between smiles and tears without turning cute. As Annie, the actress moving between husbands, Ehle is eloquent and forceful. Even in her extreme emotional moments, she never loses her resonance.

Looking back now over Stoppard's career from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966 to this year's Shakespeare in Love, we can see Stoppard's recurring interest in shifting theatrical boundaries: he loves to play with plays within plays. And it's central to this remarkably funny and honest play. Seventeen years on, it looks in tremendous shape. If anything it hasn't dated: Henry's preference for the Everly Brothers over Pink Floyd, has proved to be retro ahead of its time.

The theme of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's comedy Money is one his contemporary Thackeray would recognise. Dosh changes everything. One minute, young ambitious Alfred Evelyn, played by Simon Russell Beale, is poor cousin to the Vesey family and nearly everyone bosses him around. The next minute, he unexpectedly inherits a fortune, and nearly everyone fawns on him.

Deep down, this production of Money turns out to be that old, familiar story about a director and a designer who try to fill a space as large as the Olivier with the wrong material. Money is a five-act play with decisive scene breaks and curtain lines. It is very clearly set within the smart interiors of central London. There is a drawing room, ante-room, boudoir and gentleman's club. These are not easy places to evoke on the empty stretches of the Olivier.

Money premiered at the Haymarket in 1840. A proscenium theatre such as that would give us decent set-changes. We would see how people behaved within different types of rooms: men in clubs, men and women in drawing rooms, etc. In a play that mocks its age's love-affair with materialism, we would gain a vivid sense of the trappings of that period. None of this is available to us here.

John Caird's revival places this early Victorian hit on an open circular stage. An outer circle is littered with grey debris. A world of poverty, we presume, lies outside the charmed circle of wealth. Rob Howell has designed a cyclorama at the back that silhouettes the cast. Actors announce each new location. We see them continue to exit long after their moment has gone.

The tone itself is equally uncertain. On the one hand there are Restoration caricatures; on the other hand there is Beale with his clipped sour anguish. Roger Allam is funny as the widower, making a show of his unhappiness; Victoria Hamilton emotionally convincing as the young woman with the good heart; and Denis Quilley ripe and cynical as the greedy father. But all of them are playing below their personal best.

There's one exquisite vignette between Patricia Hodge and Allam, as they try to recall a song, fitfully, in snatches, mumbling bits, stopping and starting again. It's two minutes of gold. Hodge's Lady Franklin catches the tone of the piece. Her delivery of Bulwer-Lytton's best put-down is bang on the money.

'The Real Thing': Donmar, WC2 (0171 369 1732), to 7 Aug. 'Money': Olivier, SE1 (0171 452 3000), in rep to Sept

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