The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Summer 2014
It helps to know this: Janet Adler and Margaret Gibb are fictional characters, inventions of playwright Tim Crouch.
That's because this play not only presents them as real, complete with biographies, critical commentary and descriptions of their artwork, but attempts to draw much of its power from the sense of exploring and explaining real and enigmatic figures.
Crouch's Adler was a minimalist conceptual artist in the 1980s who retired with her partner Gibb in the 1990s, her rejection of art seen as her last great work of art.
The play has two main narrative strands. In 2004, the year after Adler's death, a young student gives a lecture on her life and work as an audition for a scholarship. In 2013 an actress preparing to play Adler in a Hollywood movie breaks into the derelict house that was the artist's last home and discovers Gibb still alive. Reverence and the impulse to exploit wrestle briefly within her before she makes the inevitable choice.
In that last paragraph I have just made Tim Crouch's play seem more focussed, more linear and more coherent than it actually is.
I can guess that the playwright wanted to illustrate the difficulty of recreating an unknown life (and perhaps mirror the allusive style of his fictional artist) by presenting his story in a fragmented mosaic. But the result is that we frequently don't know what's happening and almost never care.
The play is performed on an all-but-bare stage, the 'backstage' stuff (chairs, props, crew) visible throughout. The lecturing student and the others never interact, but just take turns calling on our attention. The identity of the student, significant enough that it is explained to the actors on the first page of the script, is withheld from the audience until the final minute of the play.
Two young children are onstage throughout, their sensibilities protected from the play by earphones as they deliver props and serve some uncertain symbolic function. You are likely to be more concerned when one is called upon to play the role of a dog being beaten to death and the other a corpse being desecrated than by anything within the play itself.
Something is being said about the artistic impulse, and how both the student's and the Hollywood actress's eagerness to draw personal gain from Adler and Gibb's lives is either the same as or significantly different from (I'm not sure which) Adler's own artistic purity.
But it is telling that the single most involving and moving sequence in the play comes when Crouch breaks with all his fragmenting and distancing devices and allows Gibb to speak simply and lovingly of her last years with Adler.
Rachel Redford captures the nervousness of the student but can't conquer the sense that she has wandered in from some other play.
The script's indirection means that Denise Gough as the actress and Brian Ferguson as her acting coach and accomplice in the break-in take a long time to become clear as characters, but both bring a stage-holding intensity to their roles.
Amelda Brown as Gibb is the most successful of all in creating a rounded, believable and sympathetic characterisation.
The playwright directs, with Karl James and Andy Smith, following his own stage directions closely, so what we see is presumably what he wanted.
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