Review - Art at Royal & Derngate, Northampton

ART
ART

Placing a small group of people together and letting them battle it out under the virtual magnifying glass of a stage spotlight seems to be a winning formula for playwright Yazmina Reza.

Theatre fans may know this French writer's work from a selection of plays including God of Carnage (subject of the Polanski film, Carnage, in 2011) and Art, both darkly humorous plays which serve to illuminate the flaws and artifice in human relationships.

Now on tour, Art is currently running at Northampton's Royal and Derngate, so I finally took my chance to see it performed.

Boasting a stellar cast of stage and screen actors including Nigel Havers as art lover Serge, Denis Lawson as his critical friend Marc and Stephen Tompkinson as their baffled sidekick Yvan, the production should be an attractive proposition for local audiences. And the trio does not disappoint.

Describe the plot alone and listeners may wonder why anyone would ever want to see this play, but the writing is so sharp and well observed, it criss-crosses from laugh-out-loud comedy to moments of truth which feel a little uncomfortable.

The play hinges around three friends, one of whom (Serge) has just spent £200,000 on a piece of artwork which arguably only resembles a white square.

Marc is outraged by the purchase, Serge is wounded by his criticism and Yvan is a metaphorical 'Switzerland' to their two warring sides, stuck in the middle and often caught in the crossfire.

The play is just under one and a half hours long, with no interval, but this doesn't feel too lengthy as the production is so wittily written and brilliantly acted.

A lot of the comedy comes down to the very slightest of facial or physical expressions by the actors and there are no weak links. For example, watching Havers rushing excitedly on stage to show people his ridiculous painting, and huffily stalking off after it is criticised, is enough to make audiences giggle.

During the great debates of Marc and Serge, the eye also automatically rests on Yvan sitting between them, and his expression of bafflement and despair is also a source of comedy.

The reason for all of the laughs is probably down to the amount of serious truth hidden behind the seemingly pointless arguments of the characters, and there is a touch of tragedy present too.

My favourite scene had to be the moment in which Yvan enters the stage and relays, apparently without taking a breath, the web of difficulties he is caught in at home, trying to organise his wedding to a woman no one is quite sure about.

An examination of human relationships in microcosm, this play comes highly recommended for all those who have a taste for wonderful acting and slightly dark humour.

Art will end its run in Northampton on Saturday. Visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk for more details.