Currently playing in rep at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton, this comic drama by Nicholas Wright about the birth of the movies and the influence of the Jews is a delightful mix of stage business and screen whimsy. Although not in the lead role, Antony Sher has been topped billed and heavily publicised throughout the planning of this piece, which is crisply directed by Nicholas Hytner.
The story begins in 1936 as a successful director in Hollywood looks back at his youth in a small town in Eastern Europe, a place so remote that the advent of moving pictures and the stories they tell comes as an amazing surprise. Motl Mendl (as he was originally known) inherits a projector and camera from his late father and a set of Lumiere prints – these spur him on to make his own efforts, first vignettes showcasing the daily lives of his neighbours, but then under the financial support of mill-owner Jakob (Sher) he starts to develop more elaborate stories, featuring pretty assistant Anna (Lauren O’Neill), who looks much more luminous in the camera’s eye than she does on the stage, saying something about the mystique and fakery of the silver screen.
The second half, once we move to Hollywood and start to unravel a story featuring a character played by the same actor as young Mendl, becomes a bit obvious and leads to an unsatisfying conclusion. However, the main story has fizz, humour and charm. And as the older Mendl Paul Jesson adds some finesse to an underwritten role, and Antony Sher is always worth turning up to see.