Review: Art at Cambridge Arts Theatre, an elegant production of an ingenious play

PUBLISHED: 08:17 16 February 2018 | UPDATED: 10:59 16 February 2018

Stephen Tompkinson, Denis-Lawson, and Nigel-Havers star in the production. Picture: JON SWANNELL

Stephen Tompkinson, Denis-Lawson, and Nigel-Havers star in the production. Picture: JON SWANNELL

Archant

This is an elegant production of an elegant play. It’s very funny and it’s very French. At around 90 minutes with no interval, Art by Yasmina Reza has three actors on stage the whole time and it’s quick fire debate.

Even in English, translated by Christopher Hampton, it exudes the Gallic preoccupation with philosophy.

Serge (played masterfully by Nigel Havers) has spent £200,000 on a painting. It’s not exactly an old master. The canvas is completely white.

His friend Marc (an equally adroit Denis Lawson) is perplexed, indignant and absolutely outraged. He goes to tell their mutual pal, Yvan, thinking if Yvan is not similarly concerned, then he can have no feelings for Serge.

What emerges is a three-cornered verbal fight seemingly to the death of a 25-year-old friendship. It expands to include the derision of lifestyles, homes, female partners and general attitudes to the world. It’s a verbal swordfight that degenerates into punches.

Reza’s writing is as sharp as her name. The opening night at Cambridge Arts Theatre had the audience laughing throughout at both the lines and the actors’ demeanour. There is immaculate comic timing here.

When Stephen Tompkinson delivers a long, exasperated speech about his wedding preparations and how many step-parents’ names that his fiancée is insisting be on their wedding invitation, the audience roared and applauded.

At the end of the play, when Serge offers Marc a felt-tip to write over the white paint, the audience held its breath. By then, we believed it had cost two hundred grand. They had convinced us.

By the end of the show, there was an almost tangible warmth in the theatre after three remarkable performances which brought this debate amusingly to life.

It’s not about art. It’s about attitudes to life and how everything is a way of looking at things and whether friendships can overcome disagreements. Making the dialogue about a puzzling painting is inspired. The play is all dialogue with little action and requires masters of the craft. This production is a triumph.

Art is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, February 24.

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