The Old Vic, London SE1
Opened 19 January, 2010

John Guare’s 1990 play popularised the notion that anyone on the planet can be mapped to anyone else in a chain of no more than six steps of acquaintance. Indeed, a cult favourite on the early World Wide Web (and still extant) was a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon site, on which you could link the player of your choice to that prolific screen actor. The play was inspired by the real-life case of David Hampton a few years earlier, who gained lodging, meals and money from a number of notables by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. In Guare’s play, “Paul Poitier” builds up dossiers on wealthy Manhattanites through a former high-school classmate of their children; the acquaintance is close enough yet nebulous enough to be plausible in his accounts. The real themes of the piece, though, are belief and imagination. Paul appeals implicitly to his victims’ imagination, so that they willingly use the same faculty to flesh out their belief in him. The notion is emphasised by making the protagonists, Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, art dealers specialising in Impressionist and early abstract works.
The play is packed with allusion and citation, which it does not always wear lightly; at times it begins to feel a little like a Dan Brown novel. Guare, however, can unlike Brown write characters with depth. Yet David Grindley’s production does not give them full rein. His staging is as fluent as usual, but it suffers from his occasional affliction of not going very far beneath the surface. For much of the play’s 95-minute progress I felt as if I were watching a comedy of Upper East Side manners. The clutch of children are not written as much more than teen clichés and certainly go no further than that in performance here. There is neither fluidity nor sufficient distinction between the elements of brash straight-to-audience presentation and those of more involved interaction onstage, so that when the emotional tapestry grew more complex for Ouisa in particular, I did not feel Lesley Manville taking me with her character into this territory. (She and co-star Anthony Head, by the way, each have a Bacon number of 2.) As Paul, Obi Abili is charming but does not radiate the necessary trustworthiness. A personification of the overall production, in fact.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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