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Great small screen and stage actor Roger Allam stars as unorthodox tutor and one-time celebrated novelist Leonard in Theresa Rebeck's comedy.
American playwright Theresa Rebeck’s ‘Seminar’ is an unapologetic star vehicle – an enticing stretch limousine of a play that offers an outrageously sweet ride for an older male actor looking to chew on the scenery. The role is cantankerous novelist-turned-editor Leonard, a man who trashes the aspirations of the students in his $5,000 private writing class with a malevolence that Simon Cowell himself might consider ‘a bit much’.
On Broadway, where it premiered in 2011, the star in question was Alan Rickman; for this London premiere, Hampstead audiences should be very happy with the multi-talented Roger Allam. The part was written for the lead prepared to have a ball and Allam obliges, dispatching Leonard’s mix of narcissistic rambling and merciless dismemberments of his students’ work – he dismissed one novel without even finishing the first sentence – with monumental relish, a world away from his sad sack persona in ‘The Thick of It’.
It’s a good laugh, but beyond Allam’s performance and exquisite way with an insult, it’s also the sort of flimsy writing that Leonard would dismiss it in a heartbeat.
The characters are sitcom-ish stereotypes, ‘Big Bang Theory’-style scribbles of intellectuals. Leonard is the Kerouacian badass with the heart of gold; his students comprise The Rich Asshole (Oliver Hembrough’s Douglas), The Sensitive Dreamer (Charity Wakefield’s Kate), The Nerd (Bryan Dick’s Martin) and The Slut (Rebecca Grant’s Izzy). And despite the play’s bristling exterior, the ending is as schmaltzy as it gets.
None of this stops Terry Johnson’s production being fun, but it’s unmistakably a gaudy Broadway entertainment, and feels a little out of place on a small, subsidised London stage. Still, if it graduates to the West End (its Hampstead run has nearly sold out) it’ll look a lot more comfortable.