If anyone was ever in doubt that the National Theatre has a magic touch, it’s surely undeniable this week with the venue opening a production about silent films just a few days after the media has gone crazy for the subject following the first major award win for a silent film since 1927.
While Travelling Light may not, sadly, feature a dog named Uggie, unlike Golden Globe-winner The Artist, it does boast a hilarious, heart-warming and predictably accomplished starring performance from Antony Sher who steals the show as Jacob, a timber merchant who stumbles into inspiring the very first motion pictures.
Set at the turn of the century in an Eastern European village, city boy Motl (Damien Molony) has returned to his lowly home with a pride-induced chip on his shoulder to mourn the passing of his father. Bored and agitated to be back in the place he once took great delight in escaping from, the discovery of his father’s motion camera offers a well needed distraction.
But, in a village where everyone knows one another’s business and the idea of personal gain doesn’t exist, the solitary pursuit is short lived when Motl offers him the money to make his first picture, with the stipulation it must be made in the village.
What follows is a well observed tale of artistic frustrations, drama queen scene-stealing performances, misguided love affairs and a classic case of one too many cooks. Playwright Nicholas Wright keeps it light with knowing jokes about the film industry steeped in irony, more Jewish gags than a Woody Allen film and just a touch of welcome schmaltziness.
Narrated by an elderly Motl, now a successful American director whose stories have all been inspired by the simple, yet ultimately perceptive Jacob, Travelling Light is an evocative look at the simple beginnings of an industry which would soon become associated with rather more ridiculous and less innocent ideals.
For the set, designer Bob Crowley has created a flat-packed village straight out of the pages of a folk storybook. Behind the open plan setting of Motl’s home are the rooftops of houses far too small to be real, smoke puffing from the chimneys. It is a classic old-fashioned film set that paves the way for a farfetched, but somewhat touching twist.
While Sher is outstanding as the linguistically challenged, ruddy faced Jacob, and newcomers Molony and Lauren O’Neill are well cast as the intense Motl and his contrastingly calm love interest Anna, it is oddly the props that often take centre stage. The ancient camera, which Motl learns to manipulate to zoom and swizzle, sits in the middle of the stage ready to show the black and white films that project across the stage and breathe life into the show.