Tom Stoppard’s analysis of ‘the real thing’ in his 1982 play of that name is concerned with the search for truth and morality in politics, play writing and human love. In the matter of the first, he annoyed members of early audiences with what seemed a definite rightward turn in his writing. While the second was an area on which his views could not fail to be instructive, his remarkable frankness over the third showed that here, too, was a subject on which he could address us with some personal authority.

We must make up our own minds over how much of Stoppard’s character is reflected in his portrait of the writer Henry, who is brilliantly presented in all his acid-tongued and, just occasionally, irritatingly clever-dick style by Toby Stephens. In an interview 15 years ago, Stoppard said that “while it’s perfectly obvious . . . [Henry] was pretty much speaking for me”, so, too, were the people contradicting him.

The matter of whether art has reflected life, or vice-versa, is further complicated by the fact that the play’s central event – the start of Henry’s affair with a sylph-like actress, Annie – was later mirrored in Stoppard’s relationship with Felicity Kendal, who played the part in the original West End run. (The role of Henry, incidentally, had been turned down by Tom Conti, who is on the Oxford stage this week in another play partly concerned with the craft of writing.) In the gripping Old Vic production, under director Anna Mackmin, Annie is winningly portrayed by Hattie Morahan. Not the least of her achievements is in managing to make a broadly sympathetic character out of a woman whose behaviour suggests hers is a life devoted to the pursuit of personal gratification. First she cruelly dumps her good-sort actor husband (Barnaby Kay) for Henry, then she betrays him, after their marriage, by giving in to the persistent advances of a toy-boy thesp (Tom Austen, in an impressive professional debut) with whom she is appearing in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (little Stoppardian subtlety there, then!). Speeches from John Ford’s blood-soaked drama, performed by the pair, show another way of writing about love even as they illustrate the developing passion of the players uttering them.

Annie’s headlong pursuit of happiness is combined with a social conscience, which is seen in her championing of a rebellious young soldier (Jordan Young) who has been jailed for setting fire to Remembrance wreaths at the Cenotaph. Later he is determined to write a play – cue for some wise words from Henry/Stoppard advising that people who can’t write had better not try. There are harsh words, too, on the subject of his politics. In this matter, one feels, Henry was probably rather more at home with the steely-hearted woman Annie usurps in his affections. His first wife is an actress very much of the tough-cookie school, as Fenella Woolgar shows in Charlotte’s every practised put-down.

This is an excellent production, stylishly designed in fitting 1980s style by Lez Brotherston and with pop music of the period (and earlier) to match. One of the comic conceits of this sometimes very funny play is that Henry, seen agonising over his Desert Island Discs selection, prefers pop to classical. With this in mind, it is appropriate to ask whether there is not another point to the play’s title in celebrating the cheesy middle-of-the-road chart-topping combo of the same name.

Old Vic, until June 5. Tel: 0844 8717628 (