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The Mentor review at Ustinov Studio, Bath – ‘coolly stylish’

The cast of The Mentor at Ustinov Studio, Bath. Photo: Simon Annand The cast of The Mentor at Ustinov Studio, Bath. Photo: Simon Annand

Daniel Kehlmann’s The Mentor is that difficult thing: a play about writing a play. Laurence Boswell’s production, the second in the Ustinov Studio’s German season and the first time one of Kehlmann’s plays has been performed outside Germany, is as coolly stylish and intelligent as the Kehlmann’s characters.

F Murray Abraham plays ageing arrogant playwright Benjamin Rubin, employed to help the younger Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman) in the writing of his second play. Having built a reputation on one early career success, Rubin’s role as mentor consists largely of asinine comments on errant apostrophes. Yet Abraham skilfully combines the tedious arrogance of the character with enough charm to make us believe that his fatuousness would be tolerated.

Polly Sullivan’s gorgeous set evokes a manicured rural retreat. Trugs and trowels provide the decorations. Unruly nature is something to be compulsively swept up or, in the case of some croaking frogs, something to be feared.

As Martin and his wife, Weyman and Naomi Frederick are creepily costumed in corresponding spearmint and white outfits. This immaculate urbanity only slips when Martin follows the example of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in going to extreme measures to retrieve a manuscript.

With Dave Price’s sound design bringing chirruping crickets and twittering birds in to the mix, it’s hard to not be won over by Boswell’s production. But despite the attractiveness of the design and the universally strong performances, the play itself, in Christopher Hampton’s translation, is rather dull and disappointing. It’s witty and enjoyable, but there’s never any sense of tension.

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Chic and well-performed premiere of a play by the acclaimed German playwright let down by flimsy narrative