Art, Old Vic, London, theatre review: 'Very funny and exquisitely calibrated'

Matthew Warchus’s programming coups at the Old Vic this year have included the Glenda Jackson King Lear and Tim Minchin’s musical version of Groundhog Day. Now he turns to this twentieth anniversary revival of Yasmina Reza’s global hit starring Rufus Sewell and Tim Key

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 21 December 2016 19:16
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Rufus Sewell (Serge) and Tim Key (Yvan) in ‘Art’ at The Old Vic
Rufus Sewell (Serge) and Tim Key (Yvan) in ‘Art’ at The Old Vic

Matthew Warchus has had an excellent year at the helm of the Old Vic where his programming coups have included the Glenda Jackson King Lear and the artistic and critical success of Tim Minchin’s musical version of Groundhog Day. He now rounds off the year and turns the corner into the next with this twentieth anniversary revival – very funny and exquisitely calibrated – of Yasmina Reza’s global hit whose London and New York premieres Warchus directed in Christopher Hampton’s sparkling translation from the French. His production ran for eight years in the West End, originally starring Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott, and then with casts that mingled established actors (such as David Haig and Henry Goodman) and stand-up comics (Jack Dee, say, or Frank Skinner) making their debut in the legitimate theatre.

The director has reassembled the original creative team and gathered a crack trio of performers who have just the right combustible chemistry. But I’m not sure that he quite succeeds in his stated mission of establishing the piece as a “contemporary classic”. It cost 200,000 francs when the play was first staged; it now, with currency adjustments, costs €100,000. I’m referring to the modernist painting – white stripes on a white background, of 1970s vintage – that is the catalyst for Reza’s witty, perceptive exposure of the antagonisms that lurk under the surface of male friendship. When Serge (Rufus Sewell), a divorced dermatologist, proudly displays this purchase, he’s hurt by what he sees to be the intolerably smug and rudely philistine rejection of his taste by his old engineer pal Marc (Paul Ritter). The hapless Yvan (Tim Key) attempts conciliation, only to be viciously turned on by the other two – as if his life weren’t bad enough already, as he faces with zero enthusiasm the prospect of his imminent marriage and all the thrills that a nepotistic future career in stationery might afford..

When Reza picked up the Olivier award for best comedy, she famously joked that “I’m surprised, I thought that I had written a tragedy”. The expert playing of the three actors here gives us intimations of the bleakness hovering round a story about the fear of change and of men reduced – via a ridiculous unravelling process – to puzzling over what they ever thought they had in common.

(Why this ill-assorted trio are best chums is a question that might occur, damagingly, to the audience first.) There’s a nice story recounted in the programme, that Reza was inspired to write the play when a friend of hers bought a similar white painting and she wondered about what would have happened if he had refused to join in her laughter at its perceived absurdity.

Being able to see the funny side about friends who can no longer see the funny side or erupt in sudden bursts of complicitous laughter against a third is one of the play’s signal strengths. Tim Key gives a lovely performance as the would-be umpire who finds himself turned into the punch bag. He deserves the round of applause he receives for his doleful, mountingly irascible rendition of a long, involved monologue about the preposterously difficult politics of the wedding invitation. You believe that Sewell’s Serge is genuinely attached to his painting in the sense of staking a hoped-for change of identity on it. Ritter shows you the bitterness of a man who can’t cope with the reciprocity of friendship if he is not in the mentor position; hence his over-reaction to the purchase of the painting as a sign of betrayal.

Warchus directs with an elegant lightness of touch and a finely shaded feel for both the absurdity and the melancholy. The production slips down in an unbroken 90 minutes. In a season of over-indulgence, it’s welcome fare – for not even its worst detractor would describe Art as indigestible.

To 18 February; 0844 871 7628

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