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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Six Degrees of Separation
Old Vic Theatre Winter-Spring 2010

This is a play that isn't about what it thinks it's about, but what it is about is interesting and quite moving.

Let me back up a bit. In John Guare's 1990 drama an affluent New York couple are entertaining at home when a dishevelled young black man bursts in. He's just been mugged and has come here because he's a university friend of their children. He knows all the right names and facts and, besides, is the son of film star Sidney Poitier, so they take him in and actually have a pleasant evening together.

I'm not giving much away when I tell you that the young man is not what he claims, but just how and why he does this, and what that exposes about both him and his victims, is the subject of the play.

A programme interview with director David Grindley argues that the play is about the power of the imagination in creating reality, while a note by playwright Guare stresses the Six Degrees theory that we are all more closely interconnected than we realise. And one character does blather on a bit about the imagination (in the process offering what amounts to an undergraduate thesis on The Catcher In The Rye), while another does later speculate on the Six Degrees, but neither of these is where the play's head and heart are, or what will connect with you.

The moving dramatic irony of the play is that the young man goes to great lengths to enter a particular social world, if only for one evening at a time, as we - and at least one of the characters - are becoming aware of how empty and unattractive that world is.

The central couple's bond is more a business partnership than a real marriage, and their trappings of culture, which include great works of art, are merely commodities to be bought and sold on. Though almost obscenely wealthy, they live from deal to deal in the constant fear of losing it all, and they are completely alienated from their children, who feel nothing but contempt for them.

This is what the young man wants so desperately and works so hard to weasel his way into, and one of the things we realise is that, for all his dishonesty, his natural talents and determination actually deserve better. Meanwhile the wife in the main couple begins to catch terrifying glimpses of the emptiness of her life, an experience that drives her to feel a closer bond to him as an outsider than to her husband and friends.

That's where the play is, in the emotional journeys of those two characters whose paths almost cross as one strives to get in just as the other is feeling herself drifting out. And so this production depends heavily on the two central actors, who do not fail it.

Lesley Manville takes her character from a glib ease and confidence that allows her to joke about striking (in the sense of handsome) coal miners, though panic at having had that life invaded, to wondering whether there was ever anything there to be threatened. At several moments, and particularly during a telephone scene near the end, Manville's eyes let us see the character seeing a chasm of meaninglessness and trying to carry on in the face of that horror.

Obi Abili shows us from the start the attractive grace and remarkable intelligence of the interloper, and then gradually lets us see a desperation that may even cross over into delusional madness, all without losing our sympathy.

This is not a great play. The Six Degrees theme is never really integrated into the action, and the Catcher In The Rye stuff is a total digression. The university-aged characters are written and played as petulant twelve year olds, and indeed most of the secondary characters are either barely sketched in or stereotypes, with even the charm and skill of Anthony Head underused in the underwritten role of the husband.

No, keep your eye on the wife and the lad. Thanks to good writing and two sensitive performances, that's where the play is.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Six Degrees of Separation - Old Vic 2010