Review: Travelling Light
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Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1
There is a brilliant premise to Nicholas Wright's warm-hearted tribute to the Jews who built Hollywood. Instead of setting it in America as a predictable biopic featuring the pioneering Meyer, Zuckor, and Warner brothers, he has written a kind of fictional alternative history set almost entirely in the kind of east European shtetl from which many of the moguls came.
It is a premise that has given director Nicholas Hytner the chance to revive a culture that has completely disappeared. And in the character of Jacob, Antony Sher is about as close as he is likely to get to playing Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye.
Wright's hero is Motl, the son of a shtetl photographer who returns home too late for his father's funeral but just in time to make movie-making history with his late father's Cinematograph. Intrigued by the new-fangled contraption, he is employed by the equally captivated Jacob, a wealthy timber merchant, to make probably the first silent feature.
Aside from a delightful scene depicting the first-ever audience focus group, comprised of shtetl inhabitants, Travelling Light is surprisingly heavy going. There are long scenes of exposition devoted to the sparkless affair between Motl and his helper, Anna (Lauren O'Neil). And Wright frames his brilliant idea within a pretty dog-eared flashback device.
Without Sher's galvanising performance, the evening would have be in danger of becoming tedious. With him, the result has lots of charm, not much depth and is much less funny than you would expect.