SEMINAR – Hampstead Theatre, NW3


Theresa Rebeck’s play about a creative-writing seminar in New York, directed with pace and flair by Terry Johnson, has met some sniffy reviews. Well, I may be out on my own here, but I thought it was hilarious, touching, and sharp as a tack. Maybe it doesn’t reveal any eternal truths, but then neither do creative writing classes. Perhaps it revels too joyfully in verbal pyrotechnics and has characters in danger of vanishing up their own back-references, but that too is horribly faithful to the subject-matter . Oh yes. Having published twelve novels and then stopped, and struggled through a year’s worth of overwritten literary splodge as a Booker judge, I frankly revelled in Ms Rebeck’s crueller moments. And maybe the fact that the characters are American (though home-grown actors) distances it enough to ease the pain of recognition.


The youngsters paying $5000 for ten weekly sessions include Kate, a child of affluence who after six years of writing-classes perfecting a novel about a girl obsessed with Jane Austen, remains unable to speak plainly her love for her friend Martin. He is an earnest scruff who believes that “constructing a universe out of language is a sacred and reverential act”. There’s Izzy, who plans to write sexy novels and flash her breasts on the cover, and Douglas, who has literary connections and likes to describe “the interiority of exteriority” and “trees so present, you can feel them growing”.

Enter Leonard the tutor: Roger Allam, swagger-perfect in jeans and a tormented scowl. He is a magnificently bad-tempered, pretentious bully enjoying the humiliation of the young, bragging in a style all too recognizable from Vanity Fair and New Yorker journos that he “ate cabbage with a Chechen psychopath” and received confidences from Rwandan amputees, because as a Writer he is charged with the “relevant” and can despise everyone else for being insufficiently “muscular” and unlike Kerouac. Who Izzy admires and feminist Kate despises. Lovely.



The play has no distinct message – why should it? – but for me the intertwined hostilities, subterfuges and bafflements of the five characters (and their sex lives) create a satisfying pattern. Kate (Charity Wakefield) is particularly well-drawn, furiously consuming cookie-dough and Doritos to console herself, and succumbing to silent despair as Martin (Bryan Dick) gets off with the insouciantly vampy Izzy (Rebecca Grant) . Oliver Hembrough’s Douglas is first overconfident, then flattened, then vengeful. And Allam’s great bitter peroration about the life cycle of a literary novelist is showstopping: that hit first novel, the agony of the second, the painful achievement of the third, then the decline into editing or teaching writing-classes to “overprivileged droning children” . Meanwhile the private despair, with no skin left…


It’s a memento mori for those who trap themselves in self-regarding style, vain literary ambition and terrible metaphors (“nail polish bottles like lost and terrified soldiers”). Rather than just, for God’s sake, sitting down and writing a story they want to tell. I rather loved it.

box office 0207 722 9301 to 1 November

rating: four  4 Meece Rating


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