Review: Seminar, Hampstead Theatre


“Am I trying to construct a living breathing cosmos with language or am I just scratching on the wall of a cave?”

Was there ever so suggestive an image as Roger Allam tossing paper into the air? Certainly not within a subset of my Twitter followers for a week or so when the publicity for Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar was released, marking the opening of the autumn season at the newly refurbished Hampstead Theatre (box office is on the left as you go in btw). Though sadly without beard, the prospect of seeing this most beloved of actors is always welcome, especially in as unfamiliar a milieu as modern American drama.

Four aspiring young novelists sign up to a writing group in New York which is led by the revered Leonard, once a celebrated novelist but now an editor and war chronicler, and through a series of classes, we see him ripping his new students to shreds in order to remake them into writers that might, just might, survive in the modern publishing world. Not everyone responds quite so well to this unorthodox approach however and their reactions and interactions mutate accordingly.

It is something of a curious play. Life-changing judgements are issued with just the most cursory of glances at manuscripts (it leads to a great gag first time round but later on it just smacks of convenience rather than any sense of dramatic integrity) and there’s no real narrative propulsion. Instead the focus lies in the character studies that are built up – Izzy’s go-getting ambition, Douglas’ affable charm in the recognition of his limits, Kate’s inherent insecurity, Martin’s blinkered intensity.

These are given interesting life by Rebecca Grant, Oliver Hembrough, Charity Wakefield and Bryan Dick respectively, Wakefield and Dick particularly impressing at fleshing out their roles. The real interest lies in Allam’s Leonard and the eventual depth that comes with a late shift (Lez Brotherston’s design transforming most cleverly) into something truly meaningful. That’s not to say there isn’t huge amounts to enjoy in watching Allam’s reactions whilst speed-reading (they’re brilliant) but it is a relief to finally be rewarded with something approaching complexity.

Terry Johnson’s direction does little to disguise this split, resting perhaps a little too comfortably on its laurels and Allam’s substantial gift and I couldn’t help but feel there are moments of what is perilously close to laziness when it comes to the female characterisation – the way Izzy demonstrates her sexuality, the place Kate retreats to when depressed – where you wish Rebeck would have subverted expectation just a little away from such overused tropes. Recommended with just a touch of caution.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Playtext cost: £5
Booking until 1st November

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