The magic of the silver screen would appear to be undergoing something of a renaissance. The runaway critical success of The Artist, an hommage to the silent cinema of Valentino and Chaplin, Martin Scorsese's Hugo, an hommage to the pioneering Lumiere brothers who more or less invented moving pictures, and the upcoming West End transfer from Chichester of Singin' in the Rain, an hommage to early sound films, all attest to the fascination we still have with what was once known as "the flickers."
The latest contribution to the current trend is Nicholas Wright's Travelling Light, an ambitious but deeply flawed and ultimately unsatisfying hommage to the many Jewish middle-European emigres (think Louis B. Mayer, the four Warner brothers, Carl Laemmle and Samuel Goldwyn) who, in the early part of the 20th century, swapped their Cossack-ravaged shtetls to found an empire of their own in Hollywood, California.
In Travelling Light, the character who embodies these ill-educated but savvy, street-wise moguls is Jacob Bindel (Antony Sher), a timber merchant in a small Eastern European village, who at the turn of the century becomes fascinated with the potential of moving pictures when a projector-cum-camera designed by the Lumiere brothers is discovered in the photographic studio of the village's recently deceased resident photographer.
In fact, it isn't Jacob who discovers the Cinematograph, but the late photographer's son Motl (Damien Molony), an aspiring journalist intrigued with the idea of pictures that move. Together, Jacob and Motl decide to involve themselves in the making of moving pictures, with Jacob producing and providing the finance and Motl directing.
The play begins in 1936 in Los Angeles, where Motl – who emigrated to the States many years before – has became a successful movie director and changed his name to Maurice Montgomery (Paul Jesson). The narrative is told in the first person, with Maurice recalling his love affair not only with moving pictures, but also his short-lived romance with his beautiful assistant Anna (Lauren O'Neil), the star of the very first film he made just before sailing for America. On the other hand, Jacob, a prototype movie mogul if there ever was one, never makes it to Hollywood and is murdered in a Cossack pogrom.
It is a potentially good story, badly botched in the telling. With hindsight very much to the fore, Wright has his hero Motl working in tandem with his assistant Anna, experimenting with how to edit without the use of proper cutting equipment, and employing terms such as "movies," "zoom" and "close-up" – words and processes not used until the mid-teens of the 20th century. There is also a reference in 1936 to Lee Strasberg's acting school, despite the fact that in 1936 Strasberg was still an actor with the Group Theatre. The Actors Studio didn't start until 1947. Nor do the copious video projections, designed by Jon Driscoll, accurately reflect the primitive, flickery look of films made over a hundred years ago.
Also contributing to the play's failure is Sher's hammy performance as Jacob. Taking not so much a leaf but an entire bush out of Topol's acclaimed Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, he shamelessly chews up so much of Bob Crowley's not particularly evocative set, I hope he has a decent supply of Rennies in his dressing room. Histrionics like this, I thought, had vanished together with the worst excesses of Yiddish theatre.
Stereotypical characterizations in the text bedevil several other performances, too, including Su Kelvin as Motl's aunt Tsippa (further hindered by a fluctuating accent), Damien Molony as the colourless Motl, and an uncharismatic Paul Jesson as Motl's older self, Maurice.
Only Lauren O'Neill's Anna makes a positive impression, especially in the many anachronistic close-ups we see in the film-within-the-play. The camera, as they say, loves her, and the movies would appear to be her natural habitat.
The director is Nicholas Hytner, who for once seems defeated by a script that, for the most part, shoots blanks. A real dud.