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Unreachable review at Royal Court, London – ‘a powder keg’

Matt Smith and Jonjo O'Neill in Unreachable. Photo: Tristram Kenton Matt Smith and Jonjo O'Neill in Unreachable. Photo: Tristram Kenton

It’s such a potent idea – chasing the perfect light – such a potent metaphor, for theatre, for life.  It’s also the seed from which Unreachable, the new play by Anthony Neilson, has grown. It’s a devised piece that’s been developed with the company in the rehearsal room and it does feel as if they’ve been tinkering with things right up until press night. This gives the play an edge and a real sense of energy, but also means it doesn’t quite feel complete, not yet at any rate.

Matt Smith plays Maxim, a Palme d’Or-winning young film director with a Michael Cimino-sized ego who’s spent the last decade working on his new project, an epic, post-apocalyptic movie called Child of Ashes. He’s a perfectionist and in his quest to capture the right kind of light, he’s started to make increasingly costly and unrealistic demands, much to the exasperation of his DOP, Carl, and his patient, faithful producer Anastasia.

For roughly its first third Unreachable is reasonably engaging and occasionally amusing, but Neilson is a theatre-maker who likes to explode things and he does so here, in spectacular fashion. Jonjo O’Neill’s volatile Teutonic Ivan – known as the Brute – is Neilson’s bazooka. Part Klaus Kinski, part Emir Kustarica, crammed into tight leather trousers and sporting Julian Sands’ old hair, he’s deliciously, magnificently, ridiculously over the top. He approaches his scenes with the lip-smacking glee of Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart. Not only does he eat the scenery, he slathers it with mayonnaise and licks each piece clean. The other cast members struggle to keep a straight face when he’s on stage, as does he at times. This powder keg quality is part of the production’s appeal. It feeds into Neilson’s thesis of what theatre can and should be – it’s the performative equivalent of releasing a live moth into the auditorium.

Smith is also great as the nervy, demanding man-child director, as is Amanda Drew as his calm, vastly capable producer. Everyone gets their moment. Tamara Lawrance is superb as Natasha, the actress who can emote when the camera is trained on her but is in all other respects a borderline sociopath. Richard Pyros is wonderfully oily as Carl, the put-upon cameraman who harbours dreams of directing, while Genieve Barr, as one of the film’s financial backers, brings warmth to her scenes with Ivan, taming him. It’s possible to glimpse the generosity of Neilson’s rehearsal process in all this. It feels like a lot of fun was had bringing this to the stage.

For the most part the design is fairly plain, the costumes monochrome. The last few minutes, however, are almost overwhelmingly gorgeous and genuinely magical, with Neilson deploying a few more of his, and the theatre’s, weapons.

Unreachable is intelligent and witty about art and ego, beauty and elusiveness. When it’s good it’s really very good – smart, sharp, hilarious – but it’s also a little choppy and abrupt. At the moment (though perhaps this will change if the play develops further), there’s an on-the-cusp quality to a lot of it, an almost-but-not-quite-thereness. Which in so many ways is fitting, but this does not stop it from being frustrating. With another few days in the rehearsal room this could have been quite spectacular.

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Anthony Neilson's playful, frustrating, often hilarious and occasionally inspired devised piece