Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Reading the text of Travelling Light, I realised that Nicholas Wright's new fantasy about the birth of American cinema was away with the fairies but, I hoped, in a magical way. When I went to see it, however, I saw a troupe trying very hard to be charming, when they needed to try a lot harder to be dramatic, and all the best bits happening in silence in film clips projected above the set.
What is this fantasy? Nothing less than that Hollywood was born in the shtetls of eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. Wright's ambition in making up a back story for Louis B Mayer, Cecil B DeMille and Sam Goldwyn, and, indeed, an explanation for the Jewish dominance of US cinema, is audacious.
Wright invents a lad called Motl Mendl who, following the death of his father, returns to his native village from an unburgeoning newspaper career in an unnamed big city. Back home, he discovers that his father, a commercial photographer, had recently bought a cinematograph, a device that could both shoot and project moving film. Presumably, the machines, developed by the Lumière brothers, were taking root everywhere but Wright sees the tight-knit, commercially driven Jewish village as especially fertile soil.
From it, he claims, flowered the commercial cinema that we enjoy and deplore today. Motl's assistant Anna, the most comely non-Jew in the shtetl, persuades him that it is not enough simply to record real life. By judicious cutting, an old man going into and leaving a store on separate days can be made to look like an old man going in and buying a coat. The older Motl, transformed into the studio head Maurice Montgomery, speaks from the vantage point of California in 1936. It was, he exclaims, nothing less than "the first example of dramatic montage in the entire history of cinema".
But there is more. Motl is bankrolled by the local timber merchant, Jacob Bindel (Antony Sher), who, with the help of his accountant, sees that there may be money in films if they can be shown in many places.
The illiterate Bindel is a master of pre-print storytelling and is soon contributing artistic advice. It is, for example, his brainwave to show whom an actor is thinking about by having a second face appear, cloud-like, above him. In the play's funniest scene, the entire village becomes a focus group, offering suggestions, deletions and happy endings. Bindel is, we understand, Motl/Maurice's first "producer". He even invents the casting couch, for he casts Anna as his star in order to bed her.
There is not the slightest evidence for any of this back story. In a programme note, the cinema historian Kevin Brownlow says that Jews turned to the movie industry because it was new and with no tradition of prejudice. Frankly, I think Wright is on a sticky wicket here, for his play deplores as much as it celebrates the values that he claims Hollywood imported from the shtetl.
Motl gets out, declaring: "Why should I spend the rest of my fucking life making Jewish fucking movies!" I felt as uneasy as I did sitting through that number in Monty Python's Spamalot that goes: "So listen, Arthur, darling, closely to this news:/We won't succeed on Broadway/If you don't have any Jews."
To be fair, Wright's historical rewrite cannot be designed for close examination. We are meant, rather, to be compelled by Motl, the artist, his genius trampled by his producer and his community (at one point, he is made to dress up in virtual Hasidim finery). We should be intrigued by his love for the local girl Anna, a love that is a fantasy in its own right because what he really loves is her face on the screen.
However, not only does Motl fail to display genius but the actor who plays him, Damien Molony, seems to be from another play. While the rest of the village oy-veys away, he enunciates like an English public school boy. Of course, he falls for Anna, for she is played by Lauren O'Neil, a young actress so wholesome in looks and speech that she must have been educated in a convent, and an expensive Swiss one at that.
Almost as disappointing is Sher, who does an impression - funny enough, at times - of a big-shot peasant but does not persuade us to think of Bindel either as a fearsome capitalist tyrant or a lonely old guy who has pathetically fallen for an ingénue.
The director Nicholas Hytner wrestles in vain both to enchant and corral his players into a coherent ensemble. Instead, they stretch along the Lyttelton Theatre's too-wide stage like figures in a Hogarth series. Only Paul Jesson as Maurice makes sense of the play by suggesting that his reminiscences may be an old man's yarn.
At the end, Wright gives up presenting them as the flickers of his cranial magic lantern and suddenly fits in an awful lot of unconvincing plotting, its only excuse being that it sort of plays on the unreliability of all narrative, not just Hollywood's. This is a Jewish shaggy-dog story that Woody Allen could have made work. As it is, it is an Isaac Bashevis Singer fairy tale, told by a gentile.
Andrew Billen is staff writer for the Times
Further information: nationaltheatre.org.uk