Review: Travelling Light
PUBLISHED: 17:40 27 January 2012
Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre **
Travelling Light takes Motl Mendl from his East European shetl to Hollywood greatness in a rags-to-riches story that should tug at the heartstrings. Unfortunately, for a script laden with cliché and sentimentality, it’s all strings and no heart.
Is this a play about Jewishness or a play about the birth of film? It can’t make up its mind, so the two strands run in parallel rather than meshing to create a whole. For a theatrical event looking at cinematic accomplishment it is strangely undramatic in both mediums.
Antony Sher is the star turn in Nicholas Hytner’s production. As the illiterate timber mill owner, Jacob Bindel, Sher gives us an older man whose ruddy exterior and avuncular concerns mask a brilliant mind that immediately grasps the potential of film to tell stories.
Damien Molony’s unimaginative, ungracious Motl lacks any endearing qualities and the opportunity for dramatic tension offered by the men’s shared love interest, Anna (Lauren O’Neil), is wasted on mooning and bufooning.
Where Nicholas Wright’s script succeeds is in charting the early development of cinema in fine, technical detail. There are lots of jokes around finance, audience response and storylines; but implicit in the narrative is the idea that Jewish experience, rather than human experience expressed in Jewish culture, is what brings the early films alive. It’s pure schmaltz.
The detail would not matter if the play was more absorbing, but despite a number of laugh-aloud moments, it is as one-dimensional as
its concerns are three-dimensional. The staging – more space is
given to the set and the backdrop sky that doubles as a screen than to the cast – reinforces the feeling that what is lacking is depth.
As a jolly romp through the early days of film, Travelling Light is a good night out. As good theatre, it isn’t.