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 The Theatreguide.London Review

On the Ceiling
Garrick Theatre      Autumn 2005

Nigel Planer's idea-filled comedy has a second-rate artist trying to cope with the fact that a personally offensive and seemingly untalented fellow artist is a genius.

If that suggests Peter Shaffer's Amadeus to you, it should, since it is impossible to believe that Planer didn't have that earlier play as a model. This new play is lighter in tone - a comedy with ideas rather than a thesis play with humour - but it raises many of the same questions about art.

If it's a thought-provoking play, the thoughts are not terribly new or deep, but I do not mean in any way to be patronising when I say they may be enough to satisfy audiences who want primarily to be entertained and secondarily to have something to think about afterwards.

Planer's Salieris are in fact a pair of fresco workers hired by Michelangelo as part of his Sistine Chapel ceiling team - or, as they put it, 'flunkies to a Florentine fairy.'

Though we never see the Master, they view him as a vain, mincing dilettante who knows less about human anatomy or the technique of fresco than they do.

But when they and the rest of the crew are fired, and they sneak back to see what Michelangelo accomplished on his own, they are awe-struck by a genius they are uniquely equipped to appreciate even though they could not approach it.

So the nature of talent, the relationship (if any) between the man and his art, and even the validity of attribution in the collaborative process of creation (Michelangelo will get immortal credit, though each of them can identify a hand, a foot or a buttock here and there on the ceiling that they painted) are all put on the table for us to consider.

And while we're thinking about these things, we're being entertained. The two assistants, an elder and a younger, have the easy familiarity of colleagues, and slip in and out of the rhythms of a double act, setting each other up for punchlines and zingers. 

The always reliable Ron Cook makes the older man an excellent Salieri figure, a craftsman of some talent and taste who has risen as far as he is going to go, only to be slapped in the face with the evidence of how much further there is.

Ralf Little brings attractive boyishness to the apprentice with a mixture of enthusiasm and diffidence, and is also an entertaining physical clown.

The play ultimately doesn't amount to very much, and certainly doesn't carry the discussion any further than Shaffer did three decades ago. But if you accept that it is just a kind of Amadeus-lite, you can have a good time.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  On The Ceiling - Garrick Theatre 2005
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