Theatre review: Seminar at Hampstead Theatre

Oliver Hembrough as Douglas, Roger Allam as Leonard and Rebecca Grant as Izzy in Seminar

Oliver Hembrough as Douglas, Roger Allam as Leonard and Rebecca Grant as Izzy in Seminar - Credit: Alastair Muir

Considering the wide array of possibilities available to any talented playwright, a story about writers at best sounds indulgent and at worst downright lazy.

While Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar doesn’t quite succumb to the latter, some clever lines and a standout performance from Roger Allam can’t hide a story that feels curiously underexplored.

The premise is simple enough: four young, annoyingly naïve New Yorkers pay £5,000 to have their fiction writing critiqued by acclaimed author-turned-tutor Leonard in a series of group sessions. Jaded, drug-frazzled and devastatingly blunt, Leonard’s harsh critique proves shattering as the group’s sexual tension, insecurities and ambitions begin to boil over.

One immediate problem is that each writer seems to suffer from the same problem; they just hide it in different ways. Well-connected posh boy Douglas (Oliver Hembrough) draws early laughs when he suggests his nonsensical ramblings will prove “more intellectually challenging than Kerouac”, but his three peers – flirtatious schemer Izzy (Rebecca Grant), entitled college girl Kate (Charity Wakefield) and wimpy deadbeat Martin (Bryan Dick) – only reveal slight variations on the same pretensions by the end of the first half.

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Because of this, the most enjoyable moments come when Leonard brutally knocks his acolytes down to size. Pacing broodingly around Kate’s suave, inherited New York apartment, Allam exudes the gravitas of a grand headmaster and, within minutes, has the audience investing in his wisdom like another set of students.

Consequently, the scenes without him suffer. Martin grows into focus as his relationships with Kate and Izzy begin to heat up, but the attraction between all of them is underexplored and, as a result, the chemistry is stunted and awkward.

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Ruminations on the nature of success, on rejection and class are consistently witty and sharply penned, but largely play on well-known tropes until a few climactic scenes at the end.

Perhaps the show will resonate with London’s literati, but for a show that so concerns itself with fiction writing, Seminar feels like it’s missing a few pages.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Until November 1.

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