Melissa Blease reviews The Real Thing, starring Laurence Fox, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 30 September

“Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe and to luuurve you.” Ah, surely even the hardest-hearted of cynics can’t fail to admit that the super-sloppy 1970s chart-topping ballad The Air That I Breathe – penned by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood in 1972, and giving The Hollies the biggest hit of their career two years later – is spine-chillingly, knee-trembly emotive.

This grandiose ode to amour is one of many similarly-themed sugary anthems inspired by transient emotional discourses on the subject of lurve that provide the scene-linking playlist behind Tom Stoppard’s award-winning play The Real Thing, written eight years after The Hollies hit left the billboard charts but still proving to be as relevant and, yes, real today as it was when it first debuted back in 1982.

The very fact that the play’s opening scene turns out to be the opening scene of a play written by the actual play’s leading man Henry, and starring his real-life wife Charlotte in the role of an apparent adulteress cheating on her fictional husband Max (who is actually one of Henry and Charlotte’s real-life friends, and is actually also called Max in real life) prepares us for a distinctly unconventional jaunt.

Later on, we’re involved in further play-within-a-play shenanigans that, to my mind, only serve to distract from the key quartet’s transactions and reactions; so far, so very soap/sitcom/Ayckbourn. But as the main theme of the drama subtly and rather seductively unfolds, Stoppard takes us on an emotional pilgrimage to the very essence of our personal perceptions of what enduring love really means.

Typically for a Stoppard play, the script is concise, precise and – at times – so perfectly linguistically constructed that a slightly discomfiting air of hyperreality threatens to distract us from the issues (ego, duplicity, betrayal, ennui, desire) at the heart of the matter. It could, however, be argued that such distractions are the theatrical equivalent of the earthing terminals on electrical devices, designed to save us all from electric shocks when the live wires get too close for comfort – and Stoppard’s characters are live wires indeed.

Having said that (ah, there’s always a HSD clause when it comes to matters of the heart, isn’t there?), Laurence Fox as Henry will, I believe, provoke a Marmite-style reaction amongst audiences. Is Henry supposed to be an entirely sardonic, intellectual cold fish, or is Fox struggling to find the flame to set the touchpaper beneath his character’s emotional fireworks alight? Personally, I’m on the side of the former presumption, and found Henry’s rather aloof indifference throughout the main body of the drama deliberately underpowered, which added further resonance to poignant closing scenes when we finally witnessed a more visceral response to the situation he’s confronted by.

He’s certainly charismatic enough though, to make his appeal to both his first wife Charlotte and second paramour Annie credible, and both Rebecca Johnson as the more mature, slightly cynical realist Charlotte, and Flora Spencer-Longhurst as the younger, ambitious woman questioning her own motivations deliver strong performances. Meanwhile, Adam Jackson-Smith is solidly compact as Max, the nice guy who quite simply wants to fall happily in love, his guileless personality serving to accentuate Henry’s acerbic, analytical disposition.

So: does Stoppard’s paean to partnership teach us much about what love means, or whether or not we ever actually find The One? Or indeed, does it go any way to ascertaining whether or not The Real Thing really does exist? The answer to that question depends on, I guess, your reaction to songs such as The Air That I Breathe: the soundtrack to the first dance at a wedding, or a futile, sentimental construct?

Stoppard leaves it up to you to decide. I, for one, love him for that.

Visit: theatreroyal.org.uk

Main image: Laurence Fox as Henry and Flora Spencer Longhurst as Annie. Photo credit: Edmond Terakopian