Theatre Review: Seminar, Hampstead Theatre

Roger Allam in Seminar at Hampstead Theatre

Roger Allam in Seminar at Hampstead Theatre

Seminar follows that well worn dramatic set piece that takes a group of unlikeable people and puts them in a situation that will push buttons to the point that hard truths will emerge and, bingo! Drama!

In this case, the situation is a weekly writing seminar led by a once successful novelist turned  legendary editor, Leonard (Roger Allam). The group meet once a week at Kate’s (rent controlled) Upper West Side apartment. Kate is a rich, white girl with a bitter and ultra-sensitive streak that Leonard identifies and picks at with a brutality that leaves her stunned and the rest of the group cowering.

Leonard is one of those aggressively male, charismatic old school American writers (Jack Kerouac gets referenced more than once, so take your cue from that). He’s bullish to the point of being a bully, but, hey, the ladies love him. He rips the soul of out of the stories his students have written, but while they may be peeved, they’re still desperate for his approval.

Finishing the mismatched quintet is Douglas (Oliver Hembrough) who is a privileged young man. We know this because of his socks (bright pink then baby blue) paired with deck shoes and his off-stage uncle, who rubs shoulders with the great and not so good. He opens the show with a brilliantly stupid monologue, but then rather fizzles away, subdued by Leonard. Hembrough’s face during Leonard’s take down of his ‘whorish’ work would have been heartbreaking if he wasn’t wearing bright pink socks. Joining them is Izzy (Rebecca Grant), a hyper sensualised woman whose motivations are unclear other than that she loves sex and the male gaze. Happy to both look and touch her is Bryan Dick’s grungey Martin who could be the nice guy of the group if he wasn’t such an insensitive drip.

Of course, these five near-strangers rub each other up the wrong way (although actually many of the problems arise from them rubbing each up the right way), igniting a smouldering cauldron of egos, sexual tension, envy and bitterness until it boils over.

Still in its preview stage, there was a little stiffness to the production that will no doubt ease into itself as the actors inhabit their roles and the script’s sticky parts come unstuck. Not that the performances weren’t very good in what must be a tricky play to get the tone of right. Kate is very White Company, all cashmere cardies and Sauvignon Blanc. She could be one of those irritating stage women that playwrights seem to love – shrill, humourless, super sensitive – who stomps about on plush carpets brandishing a wine glass like a weapon. Full credit then to Charity Wakefield who brings a natural vulnerability to what could be an abrasive role and makes Kate, and her cashmere wardrobe, relatable.

I’m a Roger Allam fan, he is the production’s big draw and he was an engaging Leonard, although I think he needed a bit more force behind him. He wasn’t quite ferocious enough, the cracks in Leonard’s character were a bit too transparent from the beginning.

Written by Pulitzer Prize nominee, Theresa Rebeck, Seminar is witty and wry with some sound observations on writing  and writers and, overall, it’s an astute study of the jealousies, the slog, the tedium of being a human as well as a writer.

For tickets and more information visit www.hampsteadtheatre.com.

by Suzanne Elliott

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