There’s a nostalgia for film in the air at the moment. From Tacita Dean’s Turbine Hall installation, to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, to the awards-baiting The Artist, nods to the history of medium are popping up everywhere. In Travelling Light, the National Theatre gets in on the act.
Nicholas Wright’s play opens in 1930s America, narrated by a successful, Hollywood director called Maurice Montgomery. He looks back at his 20-year-old self, then called Motl Mendl, and the Eastern European village he grew up in, where he first developed his passion for “moving pictures”.
In the charming first act, we follow Motl’s learning curve as he secures financial backing for his plans, gains a pretty assistant (Lauren O’Neil), works out how to edit, and develops the idea for group screenings of his work, with paying punters, to recoup the money. A sweet innocence permeates the early part of the play. Damien Molony is sympathetic as Motl, the young filmmaker. Antony Sher swaggers through the comic potential of the domineering local timber merchant, who’s funding the enterprise: short on vocab, but long on generosity. And the local villagers, all critics now, also provide some nice touches.
But soon, just like in Hollywood, money, mistresses and artistic differences being to crowd in on this idyllic set up. What seemed enchanting in the earlier scenes disappears, leaving a rather slow, ultimately rather ephemeral piece of theatre.
It is frustrating that Wright has produced a gorgeously sassy young girl only to have her descend from intelligent assistant to actress to village bike in the space of a few scenes. And the final saccharine denouement, literally explained word for word by a young American actor (we won’t reveal the twist), manages to feel both disappointingly empty and overly complicated.
“It’s absurdly schmaltzy, but I’ll buy it!” cries Maurice Montgomery, towards the end. If you can imagine yourself saying the same thing of a play, you’ll probably enjoy it. And The Artist, and Hugo too. If schmaltz sets your teeth on edge, see the Tacita Dean instead.
Travelling Light is booking at the National Theatre until 6 March, before touring around the rest of the country. Tickets start at just £12. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to find out more. Londonist recieved a press ticket to last night’s performance.