Travelling Light shines brilliantly

Steve Dinneen
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The National Theatre

Nicholas Wright’s play sees an ageing Hollywood director, Jewish immigrant Maurice Montgomery, looking back over his formative years as an earnest young filmmaker in an East European shtetl.

The whole village becomes involved in creating his movies, which are projected onto the wall of a local house, the grainy old footage blown up for the audience. The naive discovery of the film-making process isn’t as twee as it sounds, providing both poignancy and a warm humour.

One intimate scene sees two characters kiss under the camera while the cellulose film burns out behind them; an expertly directed, tender moment.

Travelling Light is clever – a metaphor inside an allegory – without gazing too hard at its own navel. The production of the movie is an obvious parallel for the Hollywood machine. The director’s vision is blocked at every turn by the financier; the public are easily bored and quick to criticise, and sexual tensions threaten to derail the whole project.

The whole process is also a coming of age story – a classic tale of innocence and sexual awakening – which somehow avoids drearily sentimentalism.

Wright’s script brings to mind Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated; not only in its setting but its neat way of tying up loose ends. Mark Extance puts in a solid performance as the flimsy young director but it is Antony Sher, as the unlikely timber merchant-come-financier, who commands the stage. He imbibes the illiterate, lustful Jacob with enough humanity to make him a lovable oaf and his explosive performance is often the focal point of a busy stage.

The set is lovingly crafted – a sparse but homely building in the unspecific town, complete with smoking chimney, overlooked by rickety wooden rooves. Taking centre stage is the Lumiere Brothers cinematograph – the thing that makes the magic happen. At heart this is a love-letter to the moving picture, and a very good one at that.