'FRIENDS, series 11. The one where Phoebe and Joey organise a creative writing group.'
That's my review of Theresa Rebeck's comedy at the Hampstead Theatre. I kept it short because good creative writing means never wasting words.
Before I got out my blue pencil, I originally wrote a few other things down, and here they are.
This is a New York comedy which is slick, well-written and as superficial as the people in it. Four young wannabe writers have paid five thousand dollars each for a ten-week writing class with fiction guru Leonard (Roger Allam), a grumpy, opinionated and appallingly rude teacher. While Terry Johnson's direction is excellent, and so are the writerly foursome, good acting cannot disguise the essential shallowness of the writing. For a good teacher/pupil relationship and characters that engage the audience through their humanity, give me Willy Russell's Educating Rita any day of the week.
Leonard, predictably, is full of himself and his foreign travels to exotic places like Somalia. Equally predictably, he insults and seduces his female pupils. His male pupils don't fare much better, being addressed as 'pussy' and 'whore'. We don't actually get to hear any of their writing (which might have made the play more entertaining), but we get to see Leonard dropping it page by page on to the carpet.
The final scene is an attempt at a pattern-breaking reversal which doesn't really ring true. In the worst traditional of American screenplay writing, the play does a violent zig zag towards an upbeat ending. Allam, who is one of my all-time favourite actors, seems under-stretched by the role of Leonard, who remains fairly one-dimensional until the last scene, when he suddenly metamorphoses into a good writer and a good editor who is actually helping his students. I found that too much to swallow.
Charity Wakefield, Rebecca Grant, Bryan Dick and Oliver Hembrough play the writers. They are all uniformly excellent and extract maximum value from what is essentially an old-fashioned drawing room comedy. As a play, it's not exactly a turkey, just a bit of a phoney.