Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton
Theatre Royal, York
Review by J. D. Atkinson
It's bad enough when your best mate, someone you've loved and respected for years, starts dressing like a teenager or tries to convert you to his new-found belief in Feng Shui. But how would you react if said mate expected you to admire his latest acquisition, a large and very expensive painting of white stripes on a white background? The fact that he could sell it tomorrow for 220,000 francs is unlikely to impress you given that he paid 200,000 francs for it in the first place. Evidently your mate is not the person you believed him to be and even worse, you're not the loyal friend you thought you were.
Yasmina Reza's hugely successful play, skilfully adapted by Christopher Hampton, has toured the country and popped in and out of the West End for years. Some critics have rather patronisingly dismissed Art as "theatre lite", and with a running time of only ninety minutes the play is indeed considerably shorter than the average film. But such an attitude misses the point - Art, far from being another depressing example of dumbing-down, is heartening proof that audiences are still capable of listening to and savouring the words of a virtually action-free play.
The tragic-comic tale unfolds in a Parisian apartment so clean and white you could eat off any flat surface - not that owner Serge (Stuart Organ) would allow you to do anything of the kind. Mark Thompson's clinical set is the perfect background for Reza's dissection of a long-established friendship. Eager to show off his monochrome masterpiece, Serge invites Marc (Andrew Dunn) and Yvan (Daniel Hill) round to admire it - only to discover that although blood may be thicker than water, friendship can sometimes be thinner than paint.
Damian Cruden's new production at the Theatre Royal brings out every nuance of Reza's wry comedy, and although the play has had many all-star casts I doubt if it has been better served than by Organ, Dunn and Hill. Serge's pride in his work of art, Marc's contempt for it and piggy-in-the-middle Yvan's desperate attempts to please both parties make for an explosive mix. There is something horribly fascinating about watching a friendship fall apart before your very eyes, and of course the early finish will leave you plenty of time to discuss the play with your own friends - none of whom, hopefully, will put your loyalty to the test by investing in an abstract painting.
Running until 11th November