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A CurtainUp LondonReview
by Sue Krisman
This play is about art, all right. The art of friendship.
Serge (played by Tom Courtenay) buys a painting for an enormous amount of money. He shows it to his best friend, Marc (Albert Finney.) It is a large white canvas with nothing on it. After examining it from every angle, with and without glasses, Marc laughs out loud at the absurdity of it.
This is the start of a battle between them, fuel added to these flames by the turncoat vacillations of their other friend Yvan (played by the marvellous Ken Stott.)
Is it rubbish sold to a gullible, rather pretentious art-admirer, or is it a work of art. Does friendship mean keeping quiet or telling the truth. Those are the two issues here. That's the story in essence and of course you can see the similarities with The Emperor's New Clothes, but the writing is superb, the relationships are perfectly balanced and I haven't seen such fine acting since the last time I said that!
It's a very funny play indeed - but like all clever funny plays it's sad as well. It is never stated quite why these very different men are such good friends and I was particularly delighted not to be told as the ambivalance added a lot to the play. Friendship means more to me than anything else of earth, but why on earth your best friends are your best friends is hard to pinpoint. All sorts of ridiculous reasons not necessarily to do with being alike or even having anything in common at all.
It's hard to explain the brilliance of the acting without giving too much away - sometimes they address the audience to explain themselves - mostly they explain themselves very well not only with their words but with their very honest reactions. It's the small things that always count - everyone always remembers the scene in Tom Jones where Albert Finney made eating synonomous with sex - in this play, who will ever forget the eating of the olives with pips by all three characters - it was only a small scene but I thought many around me that I could see and hear (all of whom looked to me like art-collectors or art-dealers) were going to be sick from laughing. These three actors knocked themselves out just to be natural - a hard thing to do, perfectly achieved.
Then there is the resolution of the dark moments of the play, which no reviewer should tell you about. Even at the end, the author won't make the mistake of making it all too facile. The tension is kept right to the lie that ends it. A little white lie that saves the friendships for another day.
There is no better play in the West End at the moment. During Ken Stott's long long tirade of a speech to which his two best friends listen without even pretending to be interested, he ends it by saying "it's a masterpiece." I couldn't have put it better myself.
Art by French playwright Yasmina Reza, ( adapted by Christopher Hampton and directed by Matthew Warchus), is one of London's major hits. It won both the Evening Standard and Olivier awards for Best Comedy and recouped the producers' investment in just seven weeks. Since its opening on 10/15/96 it has gone through numerous cast changes (all well received). Sue Krisman's review was written 10/18/96 after she saw it with the original cast. Art's London home is the Wyndham, Charing Cross Road WC2, Leicester Square Station, Tel: 0171 369 1746.