Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Mark Fletcher as Serge (left), Phil Nooney's Evan fussing in the background and Ken Agnew's Marc with the brilliant (white) painting (diagonal lines optional) in the rear. Pictures: Emily White


Highbury Theatre Centre


So, what is art? I only ask as that is the question we are faced with at the start of the evening. I mean is it a pile of bricks, or an unmade bed? Does it have to look like something real? In which case Picasso’s cubism ladies are out but Warhol’s soup cans are in – and, playing devil’s advocate, are there just old and no new masters?

Or how about what we are faced with in Art; a roughly five foot by four foot canvas beautifully and evenly painted . . . well, white . . . just white?

Apparently if you screw your eyes up, look from the right direction, in the right light, and, of course, have been told they are there, you can see some diagonal lines . . . white diagonal lines . . . just discernable on the white background.

Now, is that art? Serge, played by Mark Fletcher, seems to think so, after all, he bought it for a not inconsiderable sum. He’s a dermatologist, a well paid one, and a bit of an art snob.

At least you suspect that is Marc’s view of him. Marc, played by Ken Agnew, is an aeronautical engineer, comfortably off, who sees the painting as, well, shit, not to put too fine a point on it, white shit.

(Speaking of which, and nothing to do with the play, but have you ever wondered what happened to all that white dog poo that used to be around when we were kids? Just wondering.).

Meanwhile, back at Art, the final member of this triumvirate of friends is Evan whose uneventful life has been something in textiles, presumably not a position high enough to have a title, and his new career, a month old, is selling stationary supplies – thanks to his fiancee’s uncle giving him a job.

Evan, played by Phil Nooney, sees himself as a bit of a peacemaker, in that he doesn’t want to upset anyone or see anyone upset. To say he doesn’t want to rock the boat is an understatement, you suspect his boat has never actually made it into the water. 

evan and marc

Evan likes or dislikes the painting depending upon who he is speaking to, in this case Marc

The painting though is merely the catalyst and French writer Yasmina  Reza has form in this respect. Art is translated by Sir Christopher Hampton, the same pairing for Reza’s other well known play, God of Carnage, which uses a similar technique of a a simple event spiralling out of control.

In God of Carnage an argument between two young boys leaves one two teeth short of a mouthful so the two sets of parents meet for a civilised discussion which descends into acrimonious social and class chaos.

In Art it is the simple act of buying a painting and the discussion it generates. A simple premise except the discussion becomes more pointed, more personal, more childish; what is art becomes more about what is friendship.

The friendship of Marc, Serge and Evan goes back some 15 years, which is time for relationships and camaraderie to mature, strengthen and grow. It is also a goodly time for all the little irritations, resentments, annoyances and grudges to flourish as well.

The painting is just the cork which pops out of the bottle letting the contents bubble out. Evan sees some merit in the paining with Serge, yet laughs about it with Marc, although admits that he sees it as not completely meaningless in his all things to all men way of life,

Serge meanwhile resents Marc not understanding people can have different views to his own and has a pop at Marc’s girlfriend as well, for good measure, and for the most trivial reason.

Marc slams Even for never having any opinions of his own, and attacks Serge for his independent and incomprehensible, at least to him, thoughts.

All the frustrations and clashes are enclosed within the trio except for Evan. Evan is a worrier, he can’t keep still, arms waving like a windmill, roaming the stage like a Jack Russell with worms as he vents his frustration at his impending marriage with the demands and arguments from mothers and stepmothers on wedding invitations.

It is a long speech, which no one follows, or understands, but it highlights Evan as a man who can’t cope well with stress or conflict.

Something that cannot be said about Serge, the urbane modernist, whatever that is, defending his new painting by some universally recognised artist, or at least his right to buy it and like it. Universal not including Marc or indeed Evan.

Marc has a more analytical even intellectual approach, as he attacks the stupidity of buying or even liking a painting that he cannot class as art . . . and Evan, well, he sort of agrees with whatever is drifting on the breeze at the time, their friendship being his safe place in a humdrum life and valued above all else – until he snaps that is and he has more frustration that most to release.

His explosion  is another catalyst, one to create an uneasy peace as we drift to a conclusion. Layer after layer stripped away then rearranged, the painting merely the playing field for a different game.

The thoughts and frustrations, history and relationships are seen in discussions by all three protagonists, or in telling duologues or often by each talking directly to the audience in monologues highlighted by Mike Lloyd's lighting in a well paced, well directed piece by Ken Agnew - directing and acting in the same piece never the easiest of tasks but he manages it well.

This is the start of the run and there was just an occasional touch of Just a Minute’s hesitation about the otherwise excellent performances in what is an interesting play which, I assure you will be all white on the night. To 29-10-22.

Roger Clarke


Highbury Theatre Centre

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