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"Life is temporary. Film is forever." — Jack Cardiff
Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Hampstead Theatre's new season opens with Terry Johnson's production of his own play about the famous film cameraman Jack Cardiff (Robert Lindsay). Intriguingly, we first hear the voices of Jack and his son but we cannot see them. That is because they are trying to open the garage door which will lead them onto the theatre set. The double garage has been converted for Jack for him to be surrounded by memories of his life in making movies.

In a play on cinemascope, the aperture left by the sticking garage door will reproduce the relative dimensions of the wide screen and various other formats that Jack remembers. Jack's son Mason (Barnaby Kay) wants Jack to write up his memoirs with a view to publishing a book and Lucy (Rebecca Night) has been employed both to care for Jack and to help type out his autobiography.

Johnson's script is stuffed full of allusions to the glory days of cinema as well as scientific analysis of colour and prisms, the complexities of which I am sad to say are probably lost on me, but will thrill aficionados. However we realise quite quickly that Jack is now suffering from some kind of memory loss and, on occasions, thinks his wife Nicola (Claire Skinner) is the film star Katharine Hepburn.

Some of Jack's famous still photographs line the wall of his new museum/apartment, iconic images of women, both Hepburns, Audrey and Katharine, Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Lauren Bacall. A large camera with huge reels reminds us of the equipment Jack Cardiff was familiar with and on one wall there are paintings from famous artists.

There is some clever and evocative technology so that, as he recalls photographing Marilyn Monroe, her photograph on the wall is animated as if she is there responding to him telling her how to pose for the camera. Magical! Much of the text of this play is to do with light and Jack tells us, "It's the darkness I fear and not the death." As Jack goes back in time to talking about his work on filming The African Queen, the set opens up to reveal the outline structure of a boat and riverscape.

In the second act we are on the set of The African Queen on location, not in Shepperton, England, but in either the Congo or Uganda. Tim Shortall has created a magnificent African river scene. On set are Humphrey Bogart (Barnaby Kay), Katharine Hepburn (Claire Skinner) and Bogart's new wife Lauren Bacall (Rebecca Night). The insects are biting and the snakes are eyeing their prey and Hepburn is probably suffering from dysentery, as she never moves away from a bucket.

It was said at the time that Huston and Bogart were immune from insect bites because of the high alcohol content of their blood! John Huston is away big game hunting during this scene. Hepburn talks about how Huston induced her to make the film. "He promised me air conditioning and a dozen African bearers." Cardiff orders a dirty martini, which sounds unusually appropriate in view of the likely hygiene on board. As Lauren Bacall has gone for a lie down and Bogart says he will join her, he quips, "She d­oesn't like NOT to be disturbed!"

Returning to the present day and Jack's memories, we see Marilyn Monroe (Rebecca Night) with her new husband, the playwright Arthur Miller (Barnaby Kay) in that most incongruous of marriages, interacting with Jack Cardiff. Jack makes a pretty speech to his wife Nicky until she reminds him that he has just quoted to her a speech from the movie A Matter of Life and Death.

Lucy will find the source material for Jack's book and Jack will talk about his fear of going blind, a terrible sentence for someone who was described by Richard Fleischer as "probably the greatest colour photographer that ever lived." You will remember Cardiff's cinematographic collaboration with David Lean on Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Justin Bowyer describes Jack's art as, "It is the iridescent, shimmering beauty of Vermeer's light, filtered through Jack's lens, which saturates these films."

Robert Lindsay is entirely at home with this impressive role as are his supporting cast. The women double up in their roles creating the famous film stars convincingly both to look at and in vocal terms. We feel as if we have seen many more than four actors. Prism is tremendous fun and makes me determined to find out more about Jack Cardiff. A documentary was made about him in 2010 called Cameraman – The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. He was famously described as the man who made woman beautiful. His background was in painting and art not science.

As I write about Terry Johnson's play, I remember one of his first productions I saw, also about the cinema industry, Hitchcock Blonde, which captured my imagination then. For my review of the London production in 2003 go here. Terry Johnson has once again shown his talent for bringing to life on stage biographical material of the famous and legendary.

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Written and directed by Terry Johnson
Starring: Robert Lindsay, Barnaby Kay, Claire Skinner, Rebecca Night
Designer: Tim Shortall
Lighting Design: Ben Ormerod
Sound Design: John Leonard
Composer: Colin Towns
Video Design: Ian William Galloway
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 14th October 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 14th September 2017 performance at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 3EU (Tube: Swiss Cottage)
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