Nicholas Wright's intermittently entertaining new play looks at the early days of film-making.
Wright shows how the movie industry has its roots in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and how its earliest stories sprang from Jewish culture. Told in flashback from 1930s Hollywood, Motl Mendl (Damien Molony), a famous movie director -- who now goes by the far more American name of Maurice Montgomery -- reflects on his younger days, learning his craft on his father's cinematograph as the new century dawns.
Mendl begins by documenting life in the shtetl and he soon learns how to use film to tell a story: how to edit, how to cut scenes together and how to move in for a close-up. But the simple act of recording the real is not enough; he quickly becomes more ambitious and starts filming fictional narratives.
He also gets involved with Jacob Bindel (Antony Sher), the local timber merchant, who has a facility as a storyteller. Jacob also has the money that Mendl needs to buy his filmstock and make his movies and he uses his influence as a way of getting what he wants. He is, in short, a typical producer.Moloney is charming enough as the frustrated young Mendl, who believes in his art and is desperate to escape to America where he hopes he will no longer have to contend with controlling money men and fickle audiences, but he only really shines in his scenes with Lauren O'Neil, who plays Anna, the Polish housemaid who becomes his muse and star.
Sher seems to enjoy playing the heavily-accented Bindel, but he veers close to caricature at times; there's also the niggling concern throughout that he's about to break into a rendition of "If I was a Rich Man."
Unfortunately, the use of a flashback structure robs the story of much in the way of tension and the final twist feels tacked on. Jon Driscoll's black-and-white film footage is elegantly projected on a screen behind the silhouetted village rooftops and there's one wonderful moment when a Hollywood set suddenly transforms into a shtetl dwelling, but the strongest scenes are those when Anna and Mendl, working into the night together, slowly start to learn the language of film.
The National Theatre Live broadcast of Travelling Light will take place on February 9, 2012. See TheaterMania's previous story for more on the NT Live season.