Art is a good laugh. Written by award-winning French playwright, Yasmina Reza, the production was originally directed by Matthew Warchus and is now revived by Ellie Jones for touring. It is a play that presents three men who get into an argument over a piece of modern painting: white lines on a white background. The three friends’ bickering starts with the painting, but escalates into insults that are deeply personal. Ultimately, the play is less about what is art and more about what friendship is.
The play runs for 90 minutes without an interval, offering an evening of light comedy. Mark Thompson’s set is much like the painting in the play: white and clean, allowing the three actors to take the limelight. Some of the transitions feel a little overdone, with blue lighting and Mic Pool’s transition music, and similarly every time an actor has a monologue, the sudden light changes and sound effects feel a bit too laboured for a play that is quite simple and light.
Christopher Hampton’s translation is met with huge belly laughs from the audience; he does a great job and delivers the comedy with just the right amount of bitterness and pretentiousness. The play really does ride on the delivery of these lines and comic timing, and actors Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson have great chemistry. Tompkinson especially shines as Yvan, the friend who seems to be caught between the two men trying to out-art each other, particularly when he delivers a monologue over several minutes without a pause – it is impressive and is met with heartfelt applause. Perhaps the play could have been even more effective if these three were more distinct from one another; their characters are a little too similar and often I find that flattens the performance. There’s also some silences towards the end between sequences that slow down the piece unnecessarily; moments like these could have been tightened up to keep the energy going.
Ultimately, Art doesn’t have a profound message, but the occasional confessional moments towards the end makes me think it isn’t meant to be just a feel-good play, either. It must sit somewhere in between; one of the highlights of the show is when Marc grabs a pen and draws a man skiing down a slope onto the white painting. This kind of cheeky, playful comedy is wanting from the rest of the production.
Art is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 9 March 2019. For more information and tickets, see the ATG Tickets website.