The Theatreguide.London Review
Hampstead Theatre Autumn 2014
In Trevor Griffiths' 1975 play Comedians a class of would-be comics is taught by a veteran and we discover that the most talented student has the least commercial potential and vice-versa. In Theresa Rebeck's 2011 play Seminar a class of would-be fiction writers is taught by a veteran and we discover . . . .
The plays are not identical, of course. Rebeck's focus is as much on the teacher as the students, and as much on the various relationships among them as on the art and craft of writing.
Writing is inherently less theatrical than stand-up comedy, and so Rebeck fleshes out the drama with a couple of unrequited loves, some offstage sex, and talk of war in Somalia and rent-controlled apartments in Manhattan.
The instructor is a pretentious, egotistical, sexist, sadistic has-been whose cruel comments are nonetheless generally right on the mark, while the students include a perpetual class-taker who spouts academic jargon, a sexy girl happy to use her attractiveness and availability to get ahead, someone who has been compulsively rewriting the same one story for years, and someone so insecure he won't show his work to anyone.
No points for guessing which one of them turns out to be the really talented writer – indeed, the only surprises the play has to offer are who winds up sleeping with whom.
Aside from that there's a lot of talk about the craft of writing, about what makes a piece of writing come alive or just lie there, about what sells, about whether any of this really can be taught or learned, and about the many pains and few satisfactions of the writer's life.
It's good talk, and may hold and carry you through the evening. If not, the revelations of character and shifting relationships may be of more interest.
In any case, Seminar is the kind of drama that touches just lightly enough on ideas and delves just deeply enough into psychology and emotions to feel like it has some weight without being really challenging or demanding on the audience.
Veteran Roger Allam dominates the evening as the teacher, investing him with exactly the degree of bitterness you'd expect from a former high-flier reduced to teaching but also repeatedly surprising us when, beneath the ego and sadism, there is someone who loves the art and craft of writing and is a really astute judge and critic.
The other actors – Bryan Dick, Rebecca Grant, Oliver Hembrough and Charity Wakefield – are locked a little too tightly into the playwright's one-note characterisations but, with the guidance of director Terry Johnson, work hard to round them out.
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