Hogarth’s Progress: The Taste of the Town – Rose Theatre, Kingston

Writer: Nick Dear

Director: Anthony Banks

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Written about 30 years after The Art of Success, and picking up on the life of the artist William Hogarth about 30 years after the first play left off, the World Premiere of this sequel forms the second part of a double bill, alongside a revival of its predecessor, all the actors from the first play taking on new roles.

Andrew D Edwards’ set for the opening scene is filled with greenery and dominated by a large Georgian-style house. The Taste of the Town takes us far away from the grimy inner city that we had seen before. “Miles and miles” away from town complains Hogarth’s snooty mother-in-law, as indeed Chiswick may have seemed before the opening of the District line. Squalor and ribaldry are replaced by more genteel comedy, tarts are forsaken in favour of teacakes.

Hogarth is now Sergeant Painter to King George III, able to enjoy the fruits of his artistic endeavours, but instead, he mourns the death of his beloved dog named Trump (pause for laughter) and rues the fact that he is still not held in the same esteem as the European masters or as…well “don’t mention Reynolds”. Apart from a rather touching epilogue, the play covers a single day in which Jane Hogarth (Susannah Harker) and her mother Lady Thornhill (Sylvestra Le Touzel seeming as is if she is auditioning to play Lady Bracknell) go shopping in Piccadilly while Hogarth himself walks upstream along the Thames to Strawberry Hill and back downstream.

The style is more Wildean than Hogarthian, with clever witticisms slipped into the dialogue at regular intervals. Hogarth is accompanied on part of his walk by his friend, the actor David Garrick (Mark Umbers), who is made to to seem overly vain in one of several jokes in the play that are a little too obvious. This plot is all very slight and as meandering as the river along which the artist is walking, but Keith Allen is in magnificent form playing Walpole as gruff, cantankerous and heavy drinking. When the play gets bogged down, Allen dredges it up.

Along the walk, Zachariah Blunt (Ben Deery), a disgruntled one-legged ex-soldier appears and Garrick has to perform, not too reluctantly, a scene from the Scottish Play to prove his identity in one of the play’s excellent comedy set pieces. In another, Walpole calls in at the palatial Strawberry Hill home of Robert Walpole’s son Horace, an acid-tongued art collector and critic. Is it possible that Ian Hallard’s portrayal of Horace is making references to a prominent modern-day right-wing politician?

There is little that is disagreeable about any of this, but director Anthony Banks’ production often feels lacklustre and there is disappointment that Dear picks up on the intriguing debates of his earlier work only fleetingly. The Taste of the Town seems unlikely to become the toast of the town, but Allen’s performance could well do so.

Runs until 21 October 2018 | Image: Jason Bell

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