From Paris ... the perfect West End play; THEATRE

'Art' has it all: a starry cast, an imaginative script, and Sean Connery as a producer. 'Heathcliff', meanwhile, has only Sir Cliff
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The Independent Culture
One of the few things one knows about Sean Connery's wife, Micheline, is that she saw the French production of Art by Yasmina Reza, during its 18-month run in Paris, and insisted her husband go along and see it too. He did, and bought the rights. This week Sean Connery could be seen greeting friends in the aisles of the Wyndhams Theatre, in his latest role as a West End producer. If only all stars had such discerning partners.

Anyone looking for a play that is funny, sophisticated, stylish, stimulating and moving, should go to Art. Anyone looking for three top-ranking performances (from two stars and one actor who will be a star) should go to Art. Anyone looking for a play that finishes in time to go and get something to eat (90 minutes, without an interval) should go to Art. You can recommend it to visiting Americans or distant relations. It's light, but it's serious. It's the quintessential West End play. Thanks, Mrs C. It is just what's been missing.

Art opens with a simple idea. Serge, a prosperous dermatologist, played with a lovely mixture of gentle pride and lofty invective by Tom Courtenay, buys a painting for Fr200,000 (pounds 25,000). This appals his close friend, Marc, an aeronautical engineer, who, as played by Albert Finney, looks from then on to be on the point of permanent meltdown. This particular five-by-four painting is a white canvas with white lines across it. Finney isn't just annoyed that Courtenay has bought some white-on-white: he's "disturbed".

For his part, Courtenay dislikes the smug, superior way in which Finney dismisses his enthusiasm. The purchasing of a picture - and the nuances that surround it - rapidly unpicks their friendship. We see how different they are. When each asks their mutual friend, Yvan (Ken Stott), what he thinks, his easy-going vacillations only confirm what it is they most dislike about him.

Plays about marriage appear far more frequently than plays about friendship. In Art, translated by Christopher Hampton, Reza finds an attractive conceit for probing the animosities that lurk under the surface of friendship. The row widens when the three men move from discussing the pictures in their lives to the women in their lives. Courtenay says Finney's partner is "worse than repellent".

Finney, and later Stott, are extremely funny in denouncing the white canvas. After staring at it for some time, Finney concedes it looks "... expensive". Later, Finney and Stott - and the audience - collapse with laughter when Stott confesses to Courtenay that yes, he too thinks the canvas is "shit". Art has been criticised as a play that panders to philistines. It doesn't. Courtenay argues persuasively, as he sways from side to side, with a kind of inebriated languor, not only for the picture, but against the dull rationalism of Finney. Finney can only relax about the picture when - eventually - he can see something in it. If Art was philistine, three characters wouldn't be prepared to end a 15-year friendship over a single painting.

By the end, I imagine most of the audience had grown quite attached to this provocative white canvas.

Matthew Warchus's excellently judged production has a tall, elegant, minimal set by Mark Thompson, and ironic "plinkety-plonk" music between scenes from Gary Yershon. To pinpoint three of the best moments: there's an extended olive-eating sequence, where the three men are too upset to talk, so they hover over the table nibbling at olives and dropping the pips in an ashtray. The play climaxes with the most gripping will- he-won't-he piece of stage business since Peter O'Toole tried to flip an egg into a pint glass without breaking it in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. And Stott's magnificent outburst, where he recounts the in-fighting that has broken out between his relations over who is going to have their name where on the invitation to his imminent wedding, looks set to be one of the decade's most familiar audition pieces. You can see it here first, in all its glory.

Last year the Orange Tree's artistic director, Sam Walters, revived Ronald Mackenzie's forgotten Thirties play, The Maitlands, which treated the anxieties of a large middle-class group in a surprisingly generous, detailed way. This month Walters premieres a new play by Stephen Bill, What the Heart Feels, which does for the Eighties what Mackenzie did for the Thirties.

Bill tracks his group from 1982 to 1993, at parties and local activist meetings in the garden of the Meadowcrofts' home in Leamington Spa. Peter is a well-meaning solicitor (played by Paul Shelley), increasingly exasperated by his efforts to help. His wife, Anne (Julie Peasgood), is a mother of five, brimming with fraught niceness. Her bottomless capacity for attracting people who need help, her lack of fulfilment, and her increasing estrangement from her husband, emerge as the emotional core.

Along the way, Bill exploits a good deal of social comedy, the put-downs and asides between married couples, and the complications of worthy middle- class causes: traffic calming ("the humps was my campaign," claims one neighbour), or saving a historic barn and turning it into an arts centre. The pleasure in seeing panoramic plays in the round - this one has a cast of 18, with five entrances, brickwork running along the gallery and gravel under the front seats - is the extent to which we are drawn so thoroughly into a world as theatrically improbable as Leamington Spa.

Jez Butterworth's multi-award-winning debut play, Mojo, which opened at the Royal Court Downstairs last year, has transferred to the West End, where the Royal Court is now in residence with a new cast. (Butterworth is currently filming Mojo with a different cast altogether.) It's set in a Soho nightclub called Ezra's during the summer of 1958, where rival gangs compete for control of the young singer Silver Johnny. But with its virtuoso dialogue, black humour and ever-present violence, Mojo comes over as far more a Nineties play than a Fifties one. Playwrights used to pinch techniques from cinema. Post-Tarantino, they pinch rhetoric.

The snappily-suited Neil Stuke gives a high-octane performance as one sidekick, Potts, well-supported by the scampish Callum Dixon as Sweets. Elsewhere, a show that needs to look as shiny as Johnny's silver jacket loses its lustre. Mojo is a high-wire exercise in style. Halfway through Act Two, I felt as trapped by the unrelenting rat-a-tat-tat of the dialogue as the characters were by the murderous gang outside.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.

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