A play for three characters, a cast of thousands

Soon after Yasmina Reza's play Art opened in Paris in 1994, the French playwright received a telephone call from a woman she had never met. "I am in Paris," said the voice. "I am the wife of Sean Connery and I want to meet you immediately." Micheline Connery had seen the play, loved it, and told Reza when they met at the Paris Ritz that she wanted to buy the film rights. To Mrs Connery's surprise, Reza was not interested. Her dream was to put the play on in London.

It was a bold ambition. The West End has been traditionally uninterested in intellectual French theatre. But Micheline agreed to drop the movie project and bought the stage rights instead. Her husband, who still had pretty good contacts among the acting generation that achieved fame with him in the early Sixties, persuaded Albert Finney to take part. Tom Courtenay signed up too, and the younger Ken Stott completed the three-hander. The play opened in London at the Wyndham's Theatre on 15 October 1996. Matthew Warchus directed and Christopher Hampton, whose adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses Reza had seen on stage, was asked to do the translation.

Three years, 1,000 performances and 11 London casts on, it has won both the Evening Standard and Laurence Olivier awards, earning the most Olivier nominations ever; and on Broadway it has won the Tony Award and the New York Critics' Award and is currently breaking all box-office records. Its cast changes make news, with the drafting in of the comedian Frank Skinner this week being widely reported. So it can now legitimately be asked whether Art will become a cerebral Mousetrap - a small-cast production with a single set whose reputation builds up its own momentum as a show that has to be seen, and runs for decades, the frequent cast changes being no barrier to the audience's interest.

Artistically, the comparison is invidious. The Mousetrap is one of Agatha Christie's poorer thrillers; the style of playing is dated and cliched. Art is both funny and touching, provoking both laughter and tears in the audience. The astute, enigmatic and alluring Ms Reza (helpfully embodying all the attributes a Parisian playwright should have) made a significant speech when she received the Evening Standard Award for best comedy. "It is intriguing to win the prize for best comedy," she said, "as I thought I was writing a tragedy."

It is intriguing, too, that audiences are flocking to this intellectually demanding exploration of art and friendship with arguments over tastes in art, philosophy and interior design. It's an un-English piece of theatre by the first French playwright to have a regular home in the West End since Jean Anouilh in the Fifties.

Yet the play can accommodate established theatrical talents such as Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Henry Goodman and Tony Haygarth, and can enable stand-up comics to make their name in the legitimate theatre. Jack Dee played two of the three roles during his time with the production. Frank Skinner has never acted on the West End stage before.

Art is a play about friendship, but with a fair bit to say about modern art. One character buys an all-white canvas for a vast sum; his best friend reacts as if it were a personal insult, a threat to the value system they have shared. A third friend is enmeshed in the growing tension and mutual accusations of betrayal as they slowly begin to see that their conflicting views about the painting reflect the pain of their mutual support system being undermined.

The exploration of male friendship, complete with laughter and tears on stage as well as in the audience, is, according to one of theatre's leading practitioners, the key to Art's popularity. Jude Kelly, the innovative director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, has noted in the past that theatre in general is not considered "rock'n'roll" with young audiences, who rate it well below film and music in their leisure interests. The word of mouth about Art, though, is consistently bringing in people who have rarely if ever been to the theatre before. And, says Jude Kelly, it is because the subject matter and, crucially, the female author's perspective, are touching a nerve that other plays don't.

"Yasmina Reza is exploring the problem men have in communicating emotion," she says. "Her play lets men admit that they have deep friendships and allows them, in front of an audience, to explore something that is apparently trivial but openly emotional: `What! you've given up smoking, and now you're taking on modern art?' There is permission in women's plays for people to come to breaking-point over something very small. But not, until now, in plays about men.

"Here you have three middle-aged men apparently snapping over something that goes to the very heart of their friendship, and posing the question of when the group will allow change. It's the personal become political."

But interspersed with these aesthetic virtues are more pragmatic reasons for its success. Number one, Art is one of the woefully few West End plays to open on Sundays. A recent survey by Mori found that one-third of theatregoers said Sunday performances would make them visit more often, with younger people most likely to increase visits.

Dafydd Rogers, associate producer of Art, said: "We get a lot of tourist trade, a lot of door trade, on Sundays. We are also finding that a lot of people are coming to London from Europe through the Channel Tunnel for the weekend. They like to see a musical on Saturday night and a play on Sunday. Putting Art on at 5pm means people can have lunch beforehand, or dinner after it. It seems to work well. And our Sunday takings are as high as any other day."

Number two, Art lasts exactly 90 minutes. It is a short, intense, pleasurable and poignant experience that can be discussed over a leisurely dinner - a rare option in the West End, where most plays don't finish until after 10pm.

Clearly, the vast majority of plays do not fit this timespan. But producers commissioning new works will have noted the financial and new-audience possibilities of a 90-minute three-hander. Another, perhaps unpredicted success factor for Art is that each cast change brings a different dynamic to the three-way relationship, with the writing intricate and flexible enough to allow the same character to appear either more or less forceful, or more or less vulnerable, when played by different actors.

Indeed, it is part of the play's policy to have frequent cast changes and runs of about 13 weeks, allowing a fair bit of celebrity casting. Sean Connery has not been slow to see the appeal of that, though he has not yet volunteered to appear himself. Others are keen. The cast of Frasier in America, who could be perfect, have said they would like to have a season. The likes of Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have been sounded out.

Art is clearly a theatrical phenomenon. The producers plan to keep it running indefinitely. But could the 47-year run of The Mousetrap really be within their sights? Unfortunately, one key aspect of the play militates against it. Art revolves around a character spending a small fortune on a gleaming, all-white canvas.

"It was a true story," says Reza. "I had a friend who bought a white painting and he showed it to me. I asked him how much he paid for it and he told me it was a lot. I laughed. I laughed a lot. He laughed with me, so we stayed very close friends. I don't know what would have happened if he hadn't laughed. I knew then that I had a subject."

But for the play to work, the idea of buying an all-white painting has to seem outlandish. Even today the concept seems not too far removed from the more pretentious excesses of the contemporary art market. In 50 years' time, it could well be routine.

Players in the Art World

The opening cast of 15 October 1996- 9 March 1997

1 Tom Courtenay

2 Ken Stott

3 Albert Finney

20 January 1998- 19 April 1998

4 Mick Ford

5 Jack Dee

6 Roger Allam

11 March 1997- 27 July 1997

7 Anton Lesser

8 Mark Williams

9 David Haig

29 June 1999- 26 July 1999

10 Judd Hirsch

11 George Wendt

12 Joe Morton

2 February 1999- 27 June 1999

13 Tom Mannion

14 Danny Webb

15 Gary Olsen

And not forgetting

3 November 1998- 31 January 1999

Jack Dee

Larry Lamb

Tim Healy

29 July 1997- 19 October 1997

Henry Goodman Roger Allam

Stanley Townsend

21 October 1997- 18 January 1998

Malcolm Storry Nigel Havers

Ron Cook

21 April 1998- 26 July 1998

Richard Griffiths

Malcolm Storry

Tony Hagarth

28 July 1998- 1 November 1998

Stacy Keach

David Dukes

George Wendt

And finally, from 27 July 1999

16 Art Malik

17 Frank Skinner

18 Nicholas Woodeson

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