It began by bringing Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney together on stage for the first time. Its players have ranged from the fresh-faced Jamie Theakston to the grizzled pairing of Warren Mitchell and Ken Campbell. Contrary to popular theatregoers' myth, Roger Allam never quite "collected the set", having played only two of the three roles at various times. The producers and marketers of Yasmina Reza's Art turned its quarterly cast changes into a selling point during its six-year West End run. Although that run comes to a close in January at the Whitehall Theatre, they've pulled one final rabbit out of the hat. The roles of the three Parisian friends who fall out over an all-white painting are for the final thirteen weeks being played by The League Of Gentlemen, or at least by the three performing members of that award-winning comedy quartet, just as their third television series airs on BBC.
Having now seen Art three or four times (to be honest, I forget which), I've begun to muse that in some strange way it's a metaphor for itself. It's not just the performance dynamics, our impression of the trio's relationship, that varies from cast to cast... it's the very sense of how much real content there is in Reza's play, of whether it takes its thematic concerns about inherent versus attributed qualities (whether of a painting or a person) very far or not. In a sense, the performers are the series of diagonal white lines painted on to the white canvas of the play.
And like the lines in the painting on stage (or so we're told), they're not pure white: some are vaguely yellow, some are sort of ochre-ish... In the case of the League, the bizarrely unrelated publicity images make clear that what's hoped for is a kind of fake-blood crimson tinge. So although there's no real indulgence, director Jennie Darnell allows the three to turn in a slight caricature of the naturalism with which the piece has usually been played, that little unreality often seen in the kind of sketch comedy where the group cut their teeth.
The elegant apartment set is a world away from the League's fictional town of Royston Vasey, but the casting of the individual members plays to respective strengths familiar from their various screen guises. As Serge, who has paid 200,000 francs for the picture, Mark Gatiss exudes an appropriately smug and supercilious cleverness. As Marc, who faces off against Serge by declaring the canvas "shit", Steve Pemberton is more mercurial, with an air of suppressed violence. Reece Shearsmith, the relatively cuddly one, succeeds in focusing audience identification on Yvan, the less smart piggy-in-the-middle.
All three are of course skilled performers, and you can see the rapport gained from up to fifteen years' collaboration in, for instance, the way Gatiss and Pemberton trade facial "mugs" as they first consider the painting. However, this very affinity with each other enables them to skim over deeper elements in the play. When Shearsmith gabbles out Yvan's great bewildered set-piece about the complications of his wedding arrangements, we applaud the high-speed delivery but don't pick up enough of what he says to engage with Yvan's travails.
This is an incarnation of Art that goes fun and fast – just under 80 minutes compared to a more usual 95 – but perhaps not that deep. Still, fast and fun makes for a good enough send-off.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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