Art, Bath Theatre Royal and touring

IT would be foolish of me to simply review this play, which I should admit is probably my favourite play, and certainly the play I have seen the most.

I happened to be living and working in London when it first opened more than 20 years ago, and managed to see most of the 26 different casts that took it through its seven year run in the West End, from Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Ken Stott at the beginning to the three members of the League Of Gentlemen at the end.

It is, for me, quite simply a play about male friendship, written by a French lady, Yasmina Reza, translated beautifully by Christopher Hampton, and with three great roles for actors of a similar age – and as long as they can have all been friends for at least ten years the actual age is not vital.

Ostensibly the play is about one man (Serge) buying a white painting for 200,000 Francs and how this affects his friendship with two friends Marc and Yvan.

Nigel Havers was part of the fourth cast of Art, and has played Serge many times as well as being resident director for the final few years of the West End run. This depth of knowledge and understanding almost seems to enhance his mastery of this role, adding to his air of snobbery and awareness.

Stephen Tompkinson returns to the role he played in the West End in 2000, playing Yvan, the comic of the three, including a four-page speech about who will appear on his wedding invitations that tonight, as usual, left the audience as exhausted as the cast and earned a justifiably huge round of applause. Tompkinson plays Yvan to perfection, never once slipping into caricature or comedy for the sake of it, and thereby bringing out the sadness and poignancy of his character.

Denis Lawson is Marc in this cast, playing the more cynical of the friends, who genuinely does not believe his great friend Serge has bought the painting. His frustration and anger is completely believable, even at himself towards the end, and his is one of three definitive performances of this tour, without a doubt one of the best of the almost 30 casts I have seen perform Art.

Having seen so many people playing these parts, and having directed an amateur production of it myself, I believe the play stands or falls on convincing the audience that these three men are the greatest of friends, with different things holding the links together between the three pairings, and that this friendship is more important to them than anything, or anyone, that might end it. In this play it is about a painting, which gives us more of a connection, as we can discuss what we think about the concept of a seemingly plain canvas without having to notice the depth of the actual subject matter, and with this cast I believe this play has reached near perfection.

Some people do not like Art at all, but I do, and would happily watch it at least once a month. This cast, with design and music very similar to the original and directed with tight efficiency by Ellie Jones, are on top form, their friendship is completely believable, to the extent that there were audible sighs when Serge makes the ultimate sacrifice with his painting, and so we leave the theatre smiling, and wondering which of our friends would do as much for us.

Art continues on tour. Try to see it if you can, if only for three of the best stage performances you may ever get a chance to witness.


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