Art – Birmingham Hippodrome

Writer: Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton

Director: Ellie Jones

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Serge, Marc and Yvan are three Parisian men, friends for many years. Serge, according to Marc’s introduction, is ‘REALLY KEEN on art.’ Indeed, Serge is keen on anything modern and new; Marc,on the other hand, sees himself as rather more down-to-earth. Yvan is in crisis with an impending marriage with significant internecine strife in the background. Yvan’s rôle in the trio is as peacemaker and intermediary – marked by an inability to clearly evince an opinion of his own when with the others.

As the play opens, Serge has bought a new painting: it has a white background and white diagonal lines. He excitedly presents it to his friends, bouncing about the stage like a dog with two tails, striking an intellectual pose and stroking his chin, when appreciating his new acquisition. Marc is the first to be so honoured; he is not scared to tell Serge his opinion: ‘it’s shit’. Yvan, unable to deal with conflict, tries to please both. The disagreement over the painting provides a catalyst for long-buried resentments to surface until it looks as if their friendship may have passed the point of no return. Is there no way back for them; can they rebuild their trust?

Yasmina Reza’s original French-language play was premiered in 1994; Christopher Hampton’s translation opened in London in 1996 and on Broadway in 1998, winning awards in all incarnations. And it’s not hard to see why: the dialogue is grounded in reality, fast-paced and laugh-out-loud funny even as we watch the emerging car crash and the breakdown of the relationships. Ellie Jones’ direction (based on Matthew Warchus’ Old Vic revival) ensures the whole is fast-paced and flowing – assisted by Mark Thompson’s set design, a simple but classy apartment that stands in for each of the friends’ apartments with minor changes in décor. At pivotal points, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design serves to focus our attention.

But a three-hander of ninety minutes’ duration inevitably places pressure on the actors. As the play progresses, there are sequences in which the characters present soliloquies to the audience, appear in pairs or as a trio. They each have sections with monologues, not least Stephen Tompkinson’s Yvan who tells us at length of the quarrels between the families involved in his impending nuptials.

Nigel Havers is the puppy-dog Serge, unable to understand his friends’ lack of enthusiasm. His asides perfectly channel Serge’s enthusiasm. Denis Lawson is the no-nonsense Marc, not only unable to understand Serge’s enthusiasm but unable even to pretend. Tompkinson’s Yvan is wonderfully pathetic as he descends into despair. All three demonstrate terrific body-language and mobile faces as they act with their whole bodies to fully inhabit the characters. By the end, we really care about these men andtheir opposing opinions on Serge’s painting.

This is a production in which each element works in total harmony to produce a perfectly-formed whole. The quality of the men’s relationships is expertly explored via the catalyst of the new painting bringing us plenty of laughs and gasps, sometimes in the same moment. Unmissable.

Runs Until 26 May 2018 | Image: Matt Crockett

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Unmissable comedy

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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