When you think about it, the classic literary agent character — a wheeler-dealer type who loves to close a deal, who regards business as a sporting contest — and the author — an angst-ridden, solitary figure detached from mere vulgar commerce — are an unlikely match. Yet such encounters are necessary before any book, let alone the latest best-seller, lands in your local Waterstone's.
So it is not hard to believe that Martin Wagner's new play The Agent, which opened at the Old Red Lion tonight, is, as the writer says, "based on an original meeting". Traditionally, in such encounters, it is the author who is on the side of the angels, and the agent who's the cynical, pound-driven realist. But just how much of a bastard can the agent be? And can a writer overcome his wiles by abandoning their principles?
Those are the questions that the Wagner poses, as Stephen, a bespectacled, unworldly, struggling writer, tries to sell his second novel (after the first, as the agent casually reminds him, got good reviews but no sales). There's a neat twist here, since it is Wagner himself who plays Stephen, in a solid performance that convinces.
Opposite him is the charismatic Alexander (Hamish Clark), who wants only to rid himself of this minor embarrassment and get back to wining and dining his big names. Clark does a good job in making a fundamentally slippery character real – one minute he can be musing unconvincingly on his sad failure as a writer, the next leaping for the jugular in a commercial transaction, even one he doesn't want to conduct.
Alexander's doing that because Stephen has a weapon – a powerful weapon – and the second half of the play sees the struggle between a determined, desperate amateur and a seasoned pro in the game of commercial combat. Alexander is not so much immoral as amoral; he just wants to win any contest he finds himself in.
Yet this struggle takes a long while to get going – much of Act I being taken up with sparring about the role of each party in the literary world: are agents guilty of murdering literary genius, or are they necessary winnowers of mountains of dross? Sometimes this is entertaining:
Stephen: Chekhov made it, but for each Chekhov how many others were out there who sent off their typescript and were discouraged by a handful of snotty, offhand responses?
Alexander: That's life. Deal with it.
Stephen: How about the editor who told Fitzgerald that his latest book would be much better wihtout the Gatsby character?
Alexander: Everyone likes to quote that.
But such exchanges do go on for a lot too long, and I found myself half an hour in wondering if anything was going to happen.
It does – finally – and then the pace, and the quality of the entertainment, pick up enormously. In the struggle between the two, Stephen is aided by that fortuitously acquired weapon, which neatly balances his personal weakness. The audience is rooting for him – and not just because a lot more would-be writers than would-be agents will inevitably turn up for this show. The twists are not exactly unexpected, but are neatly and effectively presented, and the tension of the final scene, as Alexander answers that "bastard" question, is gripping theatre.
The Old Red Lion is not an easy space for a two-hander, and the way quite a bit of the action is staged almost in the audience's laps doesn't quite work. And I have a special message for director Lesley Manning: Please switch off the fish screensaver on Alexander's computer – it is very distracting! Otherwise the hyper-realist set (where did they get all those pristine, presumably remaindered, books and how disappointed are their authors, I wonder?) has an effective feel.
What this production should do is pull back to create space between actor and audience, and concentrate on the good bits – the conflict – rather than character-establishing philosophical debate. Cut down from the current 90 minutes with interval to a lively 60 minutes with perhaps another layer of twists, then this would be something to write home about. Even in its current form it is an entertaining evening of theatre, but better suited to the tastes of writers than agents with its slow, unsexy, less-than-saleable interludes.
The Agent continues at The Old Red Lion until March 24 (with online booking).