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

art pic

Serge (Chris Gilbey-Smith) can't resist proudly showing off his new acquisition, a white canvas to a hesitant Yvan (Tony Homer)


The Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa


I first saw Yasmina Reza’s three-hander French play Art in Eastbourne, where a colleague was reviewing for the local paper. It was a professional touring production, and it was desultory, dull, dreary. I’ve felt disillusioned about the play ever since.

Till now. Sue Moore’s production for The Loft is the very opposite. Her production never tired, or bored; never drooped for a second. It was endlessly entertaining, and exquisitely subtle. She and her team totally, well, almost, changed my mind about the play, and Christopher Hampton’s tightly observed translation; but more especially for the Loft giving it meaning and life.

The staging was beautifully calibrated, charming, and captivating. Clever, but not gratingly or smugly ‘clever’, as many attempts at Art are inclined to be. And not just at key moments, but virtually every point, thanks to a vast array of sly invention and witty detail, never overstated, but masterfully devised, it kept us agog and – yes - enthralled.

It was riddled with fun. In fact, it had everything. Richard Moore’s set design, presumably jointly devised, was perfect for the purpose. In effect, all white (maybe stipulated), and deadly simple. And hilariously relevant. It was amusing (puzzling?) even as the curtain went up. And the series of twosomes which launch the play raised our hopes of a memorable evening. It certainly was.

Reza’s play is set in her own home city of Paris. Art was premiered there in 1994, and in London two years later, and garnered a host of accolades, including from someone I would scarcely dare to counterpose, our own great Michael Billington. It has become so popular, many readers will know, broadly, the plot.  

In fact it’s set in Paris – in its day the art zenith of Europe (not so much Montmartre as Montparnasse) - and centres obsessively (that’s largely the point) around one main subject: the ‘additional’ central character, a painting, a largish (4 x 5 ft.) canvas that looks (and is) totally white, and for which one character (the ebullient Serge, Chris Gilbey-Smith) has forked out two hundred thousand francs (here, 100,000 Euros).

Genuine ‘art’? Or is it a con, a cheat, a kidding, posing as ‘Contemporary’ art? Is it what its viewer derives from it that matters, or what it actually consists of – what it actually ‘is’? And is one observer’s view as valid as another’s?

Art brought wit, and entertainment, a lot of both, to this Loft audience. One might almost say they were gripped, from beginning to end. Every remark – it’s primarily a long series of verbal tussles, twosomes with just a few threesomes – teasing, amusing, diverting, delighting. Remarkable, and for not just these combative exchanges, but the joyous long solo speeches (effectively soliloquies), marvellously done.

art thrio

 Yvan (Tony Homer, kneeling) will do anything to try and keep the peace

Yvan’s two rapid-fire solo bouts (Tony Homer), were hilarious: delivered at an astonishing presto: two punctuationless tours-de-force with scarcely a pause for breath, they merited, and drew, enthusiastic applause and much merriment in response to his brilliance of delivery.

Yvan is the hesitant one, the shy, afraid to speak his mind one. In some respects he doesn’t have a mind to speak, but he knows the arguments that pervade the show are silly, unfriendly, gratuitous, merely prejudiced. And occasionally, exasperated with the others, he lets off a transforming tirade.

Both other parts (Mark, Serge) have solos too, well situated around the play, with the speaker picked out, in Malcolm Hunt’s as always (The Seagull, Anne Boleyn) first-class lighting design, often but not always frontstage.

Each confides his inner thoughts, ironically contravening those of both others, in bright squares of (white) light – not merely lame, predictable circular follow-spots - and manoeuvred with needle precision by the night’s invariably excellent control room team. This intimacy was as vividly captured as all the capers and duets (no, duels) that pepper the play.

Serge (Chris Gilbey-Smith) is the purchaser, well-heeled (“comfortably off, but scarcely rolling in money”) – frankly not such as to afford spilling vast thousands of cash on a painting every day, however much he is besotted by it. And besotted he is.

The delightful, slightly but not necessarily Derek Jacobi camp way he preens from the outset about his (rash?) purchase, sets the play on its hugely engaging way. Serge simply can’t understand there could be a different view from his own. It’s a painting by the celebrated (fictional) Antrios.

“To me he’s a God.” Its white alone enthrals him. How could it not impress others? He can descry detail – diagonal lines, patterns – in this plain white, harmless monstrosity that render him the ultimate connoisseur. He loves it, adores it, appreciates it, is striving eagerly to ‘understand’ it.

By contrast, Mark Roberts’ (coincidentally) burly Marc is not just alienated by the ‘masterpiece’, but worried. Serge is his friend, of fifteen years – the three are, have always been, each others’ best friends. Initially, before the copious rows break out, his odium is not just to decry the painting (as ‘shit’), but to seek to protect a friend. To question his judgement: yes. To prevent him making similar errors: yes. Yet his gentler side is distressed they are unable, it seems, to speak a common language at all. Marc simply “can’t get it, grasp it.” A meeting of minds isn’t on the agenda.

white pait

An artist's impression of the Antrios contemporary . . . masterpiece

So Marc is the bluff one, he who does not hesitate to ‘speak his mind’, even hurtfully. “The older I get, the more offensive I hope to become.” And he ingeniously drops his voice midway. A teasing paradox. Certainly he’s mostly curmudgeonly, even bullying, but still – momentarily - affable at times.      

With an original London cast of Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Art garnered copious praise and perhaps excessive theatre awards. Eight years! 600 performances on Broadway. That does seem rather grotesquely to overstate merit. 

Gilbey-Smith’s animated enthusiasm, insistent rebuttals and damning reactions, abetted by a delicious, frenetic range of gestures and stances and facial expressions, kept us eager to devour more. His unerring versatility shone through as it did in the title role of Sweeney Todd a few years back, lor more recently as Rat in The Wind in the Willows.  

Mark Roberts, so effective in his double role in the Loft’s Leamington history extravaganza Taking the Waters, and as one of the four-handed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, never lets up as the sceptic and cynic of this threesome. His insistence that the painting is “white shit” is just as unyielding as Serge’s that it is stupendously good. Marc derides Contemporary Art unremittingly; always, one gathers, has.

The potentially monotonous harping on the same subject is relieved, a bit, by the modest, not really followed up introduction of completely different side- or sub-themes: Yvan’s impending marriage to what Marc perceives as an ugly girl, and issues with problematic in-laws; further ironies to do with shifting or terminated relationships (“I don’t resent you being with Paula”).

Or sudden unexpected, almost pointilliste, diversions: “Would you like a cashew nut?” Or Marc’s periodic swallowing of pills, sounding like echinacea – or whatever. Yvan’s failed attempts to get them out to a Polish restaurant (“…if you think that the food’s too fatty…”). Yvan simply doesn’t get anything: the idea of ‘Deconstruction’ is as perplexing to him as it is alienating to Marc.

But what made this Loft production so outstanding, so superlative, was the pacing: the silences, the pauses, the delays in responding. Professional standard? Of course. It was a gift all three characters shared. One thinks of how, say, Waiting for Godot absolutely depends on such vividly polished timing. Or of that other three-hander, Harold Pinter’s  The Caretaker (and during this signal centenary season The Loft has already staged, cheekily, that very early Pinter play (1957), The Birthday Party, with six fine interpretations, for me capped by an eerie performance as the sinister, slimy intruder Goldberg from Mark Crossley; a deliciously characterised eccentric, bewildered, dotty Stanley from Paul Curran (also the Loft’s Puck this season; and a memorable Meg from Lorna Middleton, who will apply her copious skills to directing The Loft’s Wyrd Sisters this March-April).      

But it was Sue Moore’s eliciting such cleverly juxtaposed and counterpointed performances in Art which, together with such a well-cast team and so much attention to acutely well-primed detail, that saved the play from being, frankly, the bore it can be, and turned this staging into gold. It’s what one’s come to expect from The Loft, of which she is Artistic Director: perfection.

Roderic Dunnett


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