Pros: Roger Allam’s monstrous but irresistible Leonard.
Cons: The treatment of Izzy.
I recently wrote about a show that was all speech and no visuals. I found it a bit dull. But if the staff at the Hampstead Theatre had decided to cut the stage lights in the middle of Seminar, I would still have had an enormously enjoyable night just listening to the vitriolic but percipient tirades of the main character, self-obsessed author Leonard. Theresa Rebeck has written the central part with such sweary gusto, and Roger Allam delivers the lines with such relish that for me, this character was the main pleasure of the show; a charismatic monster who has the audience hanging on his every word.
The play opens on four aspiring novelists, waiting to be coached by Leonard, an esteemed writer and editor who turns out to be insensitive and jaded. Those students bold enough to offer something up for his review are rewarded either with a savaging that takes in both the writing and the writer, or with small nuggets of equivocal encouragement. Whilst the play is about writing and writers, the questions it asks are much more universal: how much of ourselves are we willing to offer up for scrutiny and criticism? How much will we compromise on our ambitions? How do we reconcile other people’s opinions with our own self-belief?
As well as challenging their ability and motivation to write, Leonard also shakes up the relationships between the students. He shines a light on their professional rivalry, but also breeds in them the solidarity of the oppressed, and turns a love triangle into something even more complicated. There was something in the presentation of the women, Kate and Izzy, that I found a bit jarring. Women who are as sexually confident as Izzy can also be more subtle than to live in hotpants and heels. Likewise, women who are lacking confidence don’t always cocoon themselves in outsized cardigans. I felt that Izzy was treated harshly in the script. Of all the four students, she is the only one who knows her price from the outset. Her morals may be questionable, although no more so than Leonard’s, but I didn’t think she deserved to be written off at the end of the play.
Most of the action takes place in a New York apartment, where the symmetrical arrangement of seating around a contemporary-chic hearth creates a stage-within-a-stage space for Leonard to dominate. The scene changes are slick. Many of the scenes are quite short, but the frequent changeovers are smoothed out by bursts of Colin Towns’ music, which helps maintain the energy.
There is so much to love about this play. It’s full of ideas, but presents them lightly and with bags of wit; there was no ‘smiling on the inside’ here, just proper big laughs. It gives us characters with flaws and insecurities, but manages to make all of them somewhat lovable people that we can root for. It gives us a credibly happy ending, and five great performances; the four younger actors held their own admirably in the face of Allam’s tour de force. Whilst the idea of an inspiring, irascible, sexually predatory tutor, surrounded by acolytes is hardly new to stage or screen, the writing and performances here make Seminar seem very fresh indeed.
Author: Theresa Rebeck
Director: Terry Johnson
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking Link: http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2014/seminar/
Booking Until: 1 November 2014