Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘ART’, which is at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn until Saturday 23rd March
When is a work of art like a tin opener? Answer; when it opens a can of worms.
Serge is a comfortably-off dermatologist whose best friends for the past 25 years have been the aeronautical engineer Marc and the rather lower-class Ivan, who is ‘something in stationery’. Quite why Serge decides to splash out 200 thousand pounds on an unrelentingly white canvas remains a mystery – but his rash move certainly unsettles his friends. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe he wants to test his cosy relationships to the point of destruction. Because over the next 85 minutes, that’s exactly what happens to hugely comic effect: men behaving bitchily.
Written in French and translated by the esteemed Christopher Hampton, Yasmina Reza’s play ART has been a phenomenal success. And it’s easy to see why. Last night’s audience must have surprised themselves at how much humour can be wrought from a work of art that doesn’t deserve a second glance. Pretentiousness is rudely pricked as the three friends read all sorts of symbolism into what is blatantly the most boring picture ever produced. “It’s on a journey”. “There’s a system behind it”. “I can see red and yellow in the white”. “We’re not worthy to look at it.”
Knights of the theatre across the globe have been queuing up to appear in this play. It’s so actor-friendly; all three parts are a peach to play and you’re in the pub just after 9pm.
In this current tour it’s Nigel Havers, Dennis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson who are having the fun. Tompkinson in particular had the audience sewn up with his wonderful facial expressions and rubber band body language. When he produced a blue felt tip pen before the precious, pristine canvas, the ripple of fear that went round the auditorium was palpable. Havers is his usual elegant, stylish self (with a few more profanities than we’re used to) and neurotic, pill-popping Lawson makes the most of his acerbic one-liners.
Together they produce a master class of comedy acting well worthy of three much loved, grey haired actors at the top of their game. Tompkinson has a hilarious, hopelessly stretched speech and about the agonising angst of his wedding plans; and all three sit in silence eating olives for so long, the titters almost reach a crescendo. Whilst the characters look at nothing, we laugh at nothing. The only sound is the ping of the olive stones hitting the bowl.
It’s a very intelligently written and cleverly constructed play. Reza is a classy satirist who regards “theatre as a mirror”. All the early scenes are short and snappy, punctuated by vibraphone music and shuttered spots; and then the play gradually opens out as the arguments deepen. The setting for this rare white painting is a towering pale grey room with minimalist beige furniture. The three men wear various shades of charcoal. It’s all very carefully thought out to underline the ridiculousness of it all. If you like your humour well-honed, this is for you.
The play is already on an extensive tour, but the producers’ ambition is to “play as many theatres as Sir Ken Dodd has played in his wonderful career, and with this marvellous cast, we think we have every chance!” It will continue to run and run. Here in Shrewsbury, remaining tickets are as rare as Rembrandts.
Visit www.theatresevern.co.uk for bookings & information about Theatre Severn