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A CurtainUp London London Review
Six Degrees of Separation

When the kids were little, we went to a parents' meeting at their school and I asked the teacher why all her students were geniuses in the second grade? . . . Matisses every one. You've made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade! What is your secret? And this is what she said, "Secrets? I don't have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them." — Flan
Six Degrees of Separation
Obi Abili as Paul (Manuel Harlan)
There was a case recently when a beautiful woman in a sari and a man in naval uniform gate-crashed a reception at the White House. John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation, about an attractive young man who claims to have been mugged and seeks refuge in the homes of the wealthy. premiered twenty years ago this year in New York. It won an Olivier in London and went on to be made into a 1993 movie. Paul(Obi Alibi), the play's impostor, tells the families that he knows their children at Harvard and that he is the son of film star Sidney Poitier. He lures them in with fascinating conversation, great cooking and the promise of a part in his next film, and they invite him to stay the night and give him money.

Guare based his play on a real con in the 1980s by a man called David Hampton who pretended to be Poitier's son, while his accomplice pretended to be Gregory Peck's son, both using the show business assumed connections to infiltrate the home of some Hollywood celebrities. After a life of prison and deception, David Hampton died of an AIDS related illness in 2003 aged 39.

Six Degrees. . . opens with Manhattanites and art dealers Ouisa and Flan Kittredge (Lesley Manville and Anthony Head) relating their encounter with Paul and speculating on how they might have been robbed or killed in their beds after finding that Paul has let a male hustler into their apartment. They track back to the evening when they are interrupted by Paul as they were persuading a wealthy South African, Geoffrey (Ian Redford) to invest in purchasing a Cezanne from a divorcing woman anxious for a secret sale in order to sell it on in the Japanese art market. Paul is clasping his ribs and bleeding from where he has been stabbed. When later they discover the extent of the con and that other people they know have also been victims, Ouisa and Flan set about researching how Paul knew so much detail about their lives. The six degrees of separation illustrates a concept that everyone on the planet is known to everyone else in leaps of six people.

The highlight of the play for me is the parents' encounters with their intolerant almost grown up children. The students are prickly, critical and resentful of their parents, and wonderfully vocal. There's Doug (Ilan Goodman) who with every word to his father alludes to his parents' divorce. "You gave him the keys? You gave a complete stranger who happens to mention my name the keys to our house? Dad sometimes it is so obvious to me why Mom left. I am so embarrassed to know you." There's Tess Kittredge (Zoe Boyle), whose mother is seduced by the offer of a role in Cats. Tess reminds her mother with the perfect recall of children who will totally embarrass you, "You went to Cats. You said it was an all-time low in a lifetime of theater going." Please can we see more of these acerbic children!

The performances are excellent, especially from Obi Alibi who looks not a little like Poitier and has his height and good looks. Obi is so convincing and so charming in this role. Lesley Manville is a safe pair of acting hands. Her character Ouisa is greedy and unpleasant and we are not meant to really feel much liking for the grasping Kittredges, so that our sympathy is as much with the con artist as the conned which makes for an interesting drama. Anthony Head is a professional, as happy onstage as in his many television roles but he and Lesley Manville did not seem to be a believable couple. Maybe self interest looms too large in the Kittredges' marriage for them to relate to each other.

David Grindley's direction is well thought out and keeps the run-though play at a good pace apart from the last quarter of an hour which I felt dragged . This is about Ouisa's later contact with Paul as the consequences of their getting him arrested, hits the liberal conscience. The set is a plush, curved backdrop of Rothko red stripes with the spinning double sided Kandinsky canvas above. Costumes are changed onstage as Ouisa and Flan switch from night clothes to evening dress so the production flows continuously without scene changes involving props.

Watching this twenty year old play, I was struck by how much the internet has reduced the number of degrees of separation in the intervening time. Today there would be no problem getting through to the children on the cell phone or by text. We could look up Sidney Poitier and likely access a picture of his children and every biographical detail — but of course conmen similarly may research their marks on the Web.

There is an interesting real life sequel to this play which maybe John Guare would agree to write into another play. I am told that David Hampton stalked Guare, tried to sue him for the rights to Six Degrees of Separation claiming the story was his "property" and carried on the con by gaining entrance to events, pretending to be the actor playing the role or gate crashing cast parties. JGuare took out an injunction against David Hampton in 2001.

This stimulating revival of Six Degrees of Separation is a thoroughly enjoyable play that will provoke discussion.

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Six Degrees of Separation
Written by John Guare
Directed by David Grindley

Starring: Lesley Manville, Anthony Head, Obi Alibi
With: Zoe Boyle, Sarah Goldberg, Michael Goldsmith, Ilan Goodman, Stephen Greif, Kevin Kiely, John Moraitis, Luke Neal, Steven Pacey, Ian Redford, Sara Stewart, Paul Stocker, Kevin Trainor
Design: Jonathan Fensom
Lighting: Jason Taylor
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Running time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
The full frontal nudity in this production has made the producers recommend the play for those aged 12 plus.
Box Office: 0844 871 7609
Booking to 3rd April 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 20th January 2010 performance at the Old Vic, Waterloo Road, London SE1 8NB (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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