Portraits is a post war drama exploring the late life and ultimate death of war artist Augustus John. On the fiftieth anniversary of John’s death, the Finborough has chosen to programme William Douglas Home’s biographical play about the artist’s relationship with some of his sitters, close friends, his life-long mistress and the war.
In the sold-out auditorium, in what can only be described as sweaty conditions, we sit for a long time through a wordy first half. We see John (Peter Marinker) painting General Montgomery (Hayward Morse) and, with the help of George Bernard Shaw (David Gooderson), he tries to summon something interesting in this regimented man that he can recreate in his portrait of him. It takes him a while…
We then skip to John’s fellow artist Matthew Smith, who has given up painting since he lost his sons to the war. Through conversation and persuasion Gus and his mistress Dodo convince him to pick up a paint brush again.
We learn about John’s life as a painter and a womaniser, and Marinker provides us with an engrossing and loveable Gus who is charming yet never allows us to disbelieve his wild past.
Next comes designer Cecil Beaton, also played by Hayward Morse, who successfully brings another strongly defined yet distinctly contrasting character to the stage. This relationship is different, though, as they tease and taunt each other. We see, for the first time, the sitter lending a helping hand to Gus, offering advice and support, hoping he will overcome his post-war trauma and the loss of his passion and his life – painting portraits.
Marker’s debut as a director may be slightly overshadowed by his obvious talents as a designer as the set is perfect, eye-catching and beautiful, but the direction unfortunately doesn’t ooze as much inspiration. A weak first half had me craving the interval (and the heat didn’t help), but returning to the cooler auditorium for the second act was much more comfortable, helped by the slicker, faster pace brought by the actors and the direction.
Portraits is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 22nd August. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.