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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Writer
Almeida Theatre   Spring 2018

I'm not sure I'm qualified to write this review.

One of the central themes of Ella Hickson's new play is that men and women think, feel and communicate so differently that, while women can understand men fully, men haven't a clue to women's depths of experience. 

I think. Being a man, I may have that all wrong. 

The play opens with a passionate encounter between a would-be writer (Lara Rossi) and a theatre director (Samuel West) in which she attacks him for doing popularly accessible and therefore cowardly and untrue work when drama should be pure, uncompromising and dangerous. He admires her passion even if he doesn't accept all her criticism, and he offers her a commission. 

And now an inescapable spoiler. When the sequence ends we discover that, on the model of Stoppard's The Real Thing, that wasn't real life, but two actors workshopping a scene from a play-in-progress whose real author (Romola Garai) and director (Michael Gould) now join them onstage for a discussion. 

From that point on, although the Rossi and West characters generally drop out and we follow the Garai and Gould pair, we will never be sure whether what we are watching is reality or another scene from the writer's autobiographical play.

(Blanche McIntyre's direction and Anna Fleische's design contribute to this uncertainty by stressing the theatricality of the whole production, with 'offstage' space always visible and set changes done in full sight.) 

The running theme is the struggle to retain the purity of her vision against forces of compromise. Her boyfriend encourages her to accept a lucrative screenwriting contract when she wants to concentrate on her play. The director reacts to each new draft with the plea that she make it more accessible to an audience, or at least finish the damn thing. 

The only break she takes is to join a back-to-nature lesbian Wiccan collective, but as fulfilling as that is, she feels compelled to get back to her writing. (That whole sequence is not shown, but narrated by Garai's character in total darkness.) 

A final episode suggests that she has sold out to some extent, as she is living in a luxury flat with the actress from the first scene. But although they have lots of very satisfying (and just out of our sight) sex, she remains discontented. 

And then the play stops. It doesn't end; it just stops. 

Or, being a man, I have missed the whole point. It WAS noticeable that the women in the audience responded differently from the men, finding jokes and flashes of truth we missed. 

The problem is that both the fictional director of the first scene and the 'real' director of the rest of the play have a point – all things considered, it is a good idea for a play to be accessible to an audience. 

A running joke of the play has Gould's character keep telling Garai's that the first scene – the one we saw – is the best in her manuscript and that things not only get progressively less comprehensible but lose what is most important to her – the passion – as they go along. 

She says he just likes that scene because the character based on him is in it. But he's right – that really is the best-written scene in the play, doing full justice to both the woman's passionate commitment and the man's willingness to try to reach beyond his limitations. 

I made a note to myself about half-way through The Writer that every young woman should see this play, because it makes such an impassioned case for women's special knowledge and power. 

Now I would say that every young woman should read the first half of this play, before the argument begins to fall apart, ultimately defeating itself.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Writer - Almeida Theatre 2018  
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