I suppose disappointment with a production had to happen before long and such was the case with Travelling Light at The Lyttleton. To my mind, the fault lies with the play itself, for although Act One is charming and entertaining, Act Two seems to lose its way.
The play by Nicholas Wright concerns Motl Mendl, who returns home to his remote village or Shtetl, after the death of his father, a Jewish photographer. Whilst there he comes across his father’s 1896 Lumiere Brothers cinematograph and starts experimenting with the machine by filming life in the village. Impressed with the youth’s talent, Jacob (a wealthy local timber merchant) becomes Motl’s backer. Enter a pretty young girl assistant called Anna, add the stirring of the boy’s and Jacob’s heart strings and the scene is set for jealousy, a power struggle and the problems involved with making moving pictures on a budget. Motl eventually tiring of these hindrances to making his beloved movies does a runner to Hollywood …. alone! Anna, Motl’s muse and (it would seem) sexual plaything is abandoned.
May I mention a couple of niggles which start with the accent discrepencies between the older Motl, (now re-named Maurice Montgomery and played by Paul Jesson) and his younger version, the cold and rather usubtle, Damien Molony? Can someone please explain to me why Motl has no accent at all and yet Maurice is full on Jewish in 1936? In order to inform us (the audience) that he decided to embrace his Jewishness whilst in the US? I don’t know, but it is irritating whatever the reason. Likewise, the usually wonderful Anthony Sher adopts a very over the top accent as Jacob. Previous critics have likened his performance to an escapee from Fiddler on the Roof and I’m afraid I sadly have to agree.
The flickering black and white filmed sequences of the various villagers illuminated on the wall of the house are a charming and lovely touch, except that Maurice as the older and successful Hollywood film maker tends to be narrating at the same time, so the focus is lost.
For me the most believable character in a sea of Jewish stereotypes is Lauren O’Neil as Anna. Her lovely face in close-up on the cinema screen is a perfect portrayal of a silent screen goddess and, although it stretches the imagination to believe that she should instinctively understand the process of cutting and editing film, it doesn’t really seem to matter. What does is the schmaltzy scene in Act Two when Maurice discovers the identity of a young actor, Nate Dershowitz, also played by Damien Molony.
I apologise if I’m sounding totally negative. The play isn’t all doom and gloom and there are some clever and amusing touches, which is to be expected when Nicholas Hytner is directing. I just feel that the amalgamation of film and theatre doesn’t quite work, with the filmed sequences upstaging the theatrical element at every turn. I would prefer the play to be rooted in some kind of reality and have more dramatic depth.