Lautrec – Camden Fringe, Hen & Chickens Theatre

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Fergus Rattigan

Director: Natalie Winter

The life of Comte Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, better known simply as Toulouse-Lautrec, is a fascinating one, certainly far deeper than the simplistic approximation currently gracing the West End stage in Moulin Rouge! The Musical.

In Fergus Rattigan’s piece, Henri’s life is explored in a linear fashion, from his early days as the child of an aristocratic family whose inbreeding may well have contributed to his ill health and disability, to his success as one of the great Parisian impressionists. 

Rattigan plays the titular painter with a knowing mixture of humour, gravity and impending tragedy. There is sometimes a sense of boxes being ticked off: his parents’ separation; the father who is unsupportive of his son’s artistic endeavours; in contrast, an encouraging mother; informal tutelage under the deaf-mute painter René Princeteau; moving to Paris and becoming entranced by the actresses and prostitutes he encountered while living as a Bohemian in Montmartre.

Throughout, Rattigan plays against Marie Drisch, in a variety of roles, few of which ever get the chance to be more than a passing cipher. Her strongest is as Lautrec’s friend Yvette Guilbert, who allows the painter into her boudoir because she sees him as non-threatening. Lautrec’s frustration at never being regarded as a sexual being due to his disability is the strongest, most affectingly written and performed thematic element of the whole piece.

Elsewhere, though, the sense of a need to touch on all elements of Lautrec’s life detracts from such emotions. Some of the painter’s key artworks – especially the posters for bourgeois cabaret performer Aristide Bruant and, of course, for the Moulin Rouge – adorn the stage, facing the wall until they are turned over in time with their appearance in the artist’s biography. It’s a simple but effective device, hampered only slightly by the small size of each work.

As Lautrec’s life, and so the play, draws to a close, Rattigan focuses on the artist’s mental health decline due to a combination of alcoholism and syphilis, and his committal into a sanatorium. His confusion about who he is talking to – given that Drisch plays not only his teacher but his mother and all his friends – is not really exploited as well as the theatrical setting would allow.

And the same can be said for most of this piece. Given how much of a full life that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec crammed into his 36 years, such a straightforward telling offers only a cursory view of an artist who deserves to be explored in much greater depth.

Continues until 17 August 2022

The Camden Fringe runs from 1-28 August 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. 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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