The Theatreguide.London Review
Wyndhams, then Whitehall Theatre 1996-2003
[Scroll down for our updates for Summer 2001 and the final cast of Winter 2002. . .]
In Yasmina Reza's play three fortyish friends find their relationship threatened when one buys a painting that one of the others can't stand. The result is either high comedy with touches of pathos, or deep drama with flashes of humour.
Serge has just spent a lot of money on a modern white-on-white painting, and his best friend Marc is extraordinarily offended by what might at first seem to be none of his business.
Gradually it becomes clear that Marc is threatened by the painting's implications. If Serge has such bad taste and lack of common sense, what does that say about his choice of Marc for a friend?
Has Serge been lying to his friends, by pretending to be the sort of person who wouldn't buy such a painting?
Meanwhile the third friend,Yvan, finds himself threatened by the argument, as he realises how desperately he needs this three-way friendship to remain stable, because he has so little else in his life.
It left me cold. Evidently the original cast back in 1996, with Tom Courtenay as Serge, Albert Finney as Marc and Ken Stott as Yvan, gave the characters enough depth and warmth for audiences to care about their feelings while still enjoying their comic squabbles.
I saw the second or third cast (Roger Allam et al), who were playing it cool, with a touch of cynicism.
The result was to make the central pair both seem like prigs, Marc for presuming to be offended by his friend's taste, and Serge for laughing at his friend's passion. And the tearjerking around Yvan just didn't work.
I've heard, though, that other casts have had other dynamics. With some, it plays as light comedy, satirising everyone's pretensions to high passions. Others make it a touching study in the fragility of friendship and all three men's hitherto-unrealised need for it.
The cast changes every three months or so, and has now reached the level of second-string TV actors, the British equivalents of, say, George Segal (who in fact is in it for summer 2001). Still, as an ensemble piece, it should work just as well with a balanced low-key approach as with stars.
Just be prepared for the fact that the show you see will be different in tone and effect from the one your friends saw last year, and will probably be a glib skating over the emotional issues and implications it raises.
Summer 2001 update . . .
George Segal's bemused Serge, Paul Freeman's pressure-cooker Marc, and Richard Griffiths' extraordinarily poignant Yvan make this one of the most attractive line-ups so far - even in spite of the fact that there's a hint of miscasting and they could all shuffle along a character (e.g. Segal would be better off playing Marc). If only for Griffiths, it's a must-see.
Winter 2002 update . . .
Sadly, it's time to say adieu to Serge and pals as The League Of Gentlemen (stars of the eponymous BBC TV series) bring their dark comic genius to wind up this, the 27th and final line-up of Art.
If you're already a devotee of the TV show, you'll know that not only are the trio masters of disguise (there's a fourth who writes), but they're also consummate comic actors in their own right.
And while the laidback, indeed colloquial, approach of Mark Gatiss (perky Serge), Steve Pemberton (laconic Marc) and Reece Shearsmith (wickedly neurotic Yvan) may not be to everyone's taste, it's undeniably perfect casting to complete the spectrum of wall-to-wall talent that's made the show such a feature of London's theatrical landscape.
Although the transfer from Wyndham's Theatre to the Whitehall means that the white set feels awkward and a certain intimacy is lost, there is every reason to catch the League hard at work with someone else's material.
Playing cheekily with rhythms of speech and timing, they create a very English rendition of what is essentially a French play, substituting the de rigueur dramatic devices and flourishes with frighteningly real personalities that transcend the dramatic crutch of Yasmina Reza's Continental-style philosophizing text and sub-text.
Admittedly the first ever cast of Courtenay, Finney and Stott all those years ago set the benchmark for the production (though I found them yawnsome and wooden) - and the League have the advantage of tapping into the accumulated performances that followed.
I could choose a film version that preserves the essence of this
timeless comedy, then Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith get my vote.
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