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SEMINAR – Hampstead Theatre, London.

Seminar, Hampstead Theatre, London

Photo by Shaun Webb

Writing is not a spectator sport. Theresa Rebeck’s wryly cynical 2011 play sets out to disprove that fact by focussing on the hoopla surrounding the act of putting pen to paper, from battling personal demons to the grim pragmatism of networking and packaging art for commercial use, but Seminar is fatally weakened by the necessity of keeping the creative process it’s primarily concerned with offstage and having to rely on another inherently somniferous act – reading – during its pivotal moments. Add a glaring lack of narrative propulsion, emphasised by Terry Johnson’s placid rendering, and this American import offers only occasionally droll industry droll industry satire and, for the most part, terribly anaemic drama.

Leonard (Roger Allam, inheriting the role from Broadway lead Alan Rickman) is a former celebrated novelist-turned-respected editor, pompous war chronicler and notorious fiction teacher. Four aspiring writers have paid $5,000 for the masochistic pleasure of submitting themselves to his not-so-tender mercies: defensively privileged Kate (Charity Wakefield), in whose palatial rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment the class is held; earnest name-dropper Douglas (Oliver Hembrough), partial to pretentious statements like “Postmodernism has really fallen on hard times”; bitter outsider and committed armchair socialist Martin (Bryan Dick); and sexually rapacious Izzy (Rebecca Grant), planning to pose nude on her book cover – but in an “ironic” way.

Rebeck poses a contentious question – can you actually teach writing, or is it an innate gift? – but is less interested in the answer than in the cruel comedy of skewering this poisonous, self-absorbed, bed-hopping group. She self-deprecatingly presents the worst qualities of writers (labelled “feral cats”) – the insecurity, envy, paranoia and passive-aggressive competitiveness – and Leonard is their king, a monstrously manipulative predator committing atrocities in the name of tough love and following in the well-worn dramatic tradition of wildly unorthodox teachers.

Allam, who played a similarly egotistical writer in Tamara Drewe, relishes the horror of this coolly sadistic puppet master, landing excoriating attacks in the clear knowledge that there’s a miniscule division between art and artist. Dressed in cowboy boots and prominent Western belt buckle, he styles himself as a straight-talking literary outlaw, but it’s a carefully calibrated performance, from “forgetting” students’ names to tossing pages of their work on the floor when he’s finished with them. However, Allam is less successful at communicating the underlying desperation of this vicious narcissist, unable to entirely ditch his natural laconic charm.

As in Terrence McNally’s similarly structured Master Class, Seminar’s showboating central role is the main draw. Rebeck’s students are a relatively underdeveloped bunch, and, in the case of the two female characters, disappointingly reductive; Rebeck makes astute comments about the gender bias of the literary world, but fails to counter it in her own characterisation. Kate is a shrill, comfort-eating feminist jealous of Izzy’s easy sexuality, while the latter is overtly judged for her opportunistic promiscuity. Wakefield does well to wrestle passion out of Kate, but struggles to find light and shade.

Hembrough is the most engaging of the supporting cast, confidence deflating with an audible hiss when Leonard nastily brands him “whorish”, only fit to be a Hollywood hack. Dick nicely conveys Martin’s pigheaded self-destructiveness, though both he and Allam are defeated by Rebeck’s sudden third-act swerve into soapy therapy, which abandons moral ambiguity for the rather tired notion that Leonard’s savagery stems from personal hurt. Her characters are too ill-defined to sell a conclusion based on emotion rather than punchlines.

Seminar is packed with delicious insider jokes, from the rise of the cod-memoir to the petty rivalries of a very small world, but like Colin Towns’ breezy jazz easing us between scenes, it’s more concerned with entertaining than enlightening. “His words have nothing behind them,” says Martin of Douglas, and, while skilfully crafted, one could say the same of Rebeck’s.

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Reviewed 01/10/14/

By Marianka Swain

25th September – 18th October 2014
Hampstead Theatre, London, NW3.

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