ComedyReviewSouth East

Art – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Writer: Yasmina Reza

Director: Ellie Jones

Reviewer: Steve Turner

Over 20 years ago Yasmina Reza’s short play was a major hit on the West End stage, with many well-known actors willing to take on the role of one of the three protagonists. It comes as some surprise then, to learn that it was written as a tragedy and not as the hilarious comedy we see today. Something gained in translation perhaps?

Christopher Hampton worked closely with the author to ensure he stayed as true to the original as possible, so perhaps it’s just down to perception. Where Reza wrote what she saw as a biting satire on the nature of relationships, a work which needed to be concentrated on and thought about, her audiences lapped up the caustic put-downs, the angry exchanges and the faults of each character seeing the work as the highest comedy.

Tonight’s sell-out audience certainly saw it as a comedy, with the laughter so loud that it was necessary for the cast to pause at times, lest the next acerbic line be missed. As the three Parisians Serge, Marc and Yvan, actors Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson look to be having as much fun as the packed auditorium, Havers especially looking like he is stifling a laugh at times, as the banter flows back and forth.

Sensibly retaining the Paris setting of the original we meet the three friends soon after Serge has spent 200,000 on a painting which is basically a white canvas with some white paint on it. Serge is very pleased with himself as the artist currently has a lot of cachet; Marc is horrified and uses this to justify his dwindling opinion of Serge’s tastes; Ivan, however, is more conciliatory, trying to keep his friends on good terms. From here we watch as the relationship between the three starts to deteriorate amid a serious of accusations, admissions and insults.

Havers is often cast as the suave type, most likely because he does it so well, and here as Serge he is just about perfect; the archetypal social climber, hoping that his new acquisition will endear him to his new friends. His old friend Marc, however, is most definitely not impressed: A fan of classical art he denigrates Serge’s purchase at every chance he gets with as much vitriol as he can muster. Denis Lawson’s portrayal of a man seemingly on the cusp of an explosion is well observed, funny and likeable despite his snobbish attitude to anything he considers modern.

Stephen Tompkinson gets a lot of the laughs as Yvan, probably because this is the one character most of us can identify with – caught in a job that he doesn’t really like, trapped in the chaos of planning a wedding involving extremely uncooperative mothers and stepmothers, he needs the trio to stay together as friends and is constantly working towards this end. The scene where he pours forth his tale of woe regarding the wedding plans is a complete joy eliciting a generous round of applause from the audience at its breathless finale.

As a single act play of 80 minutes or so it requires some skilful handling by director Ellie Jones to keep the action flowing, the minimal set helping to keep the focus on the dialogue which is expertly delivered throughout. With each actor literally getting their time in the spotlight as they express their thoughts with the remainder of the set darkened in the theatrical equivalent of a thought bubble, the audience is kept entertained from first word to last. That said perhaps one of the funniest scenes is when hardly any dialogue is spoken and a reluctantly shared bowl of olives serves to highlight the tension between the three men.

As a work highlighting the way in which relationships change over time and how some people can keep up the pretence of friendship despite inner misgivings there is enough here to make it a serious work. As a comedy, however, this is as near perfect as you can get.

Superb dialogue, expertly delivered by three consummate professionals – a complete joy.

Runs until 23 February 2019 and on tour | Image: Contributed

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