The Muse

Katherine Tozer

Palimpsest

Leighton House Museum, Holland Park

From 22 March 2017 to 30 March 2017

Review by Philip Fisher

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In honour of its inspiration, Lord Leighton's masterpiece Flaming June, The Muse returns to the artist's home in a new version.

Even by the luxurious standards of London's Holland Park, the Leighton House Museum is opulent, with lavish mosaics and a collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings to die for, many by the man who used to reside there.

This production has been designed to complement the style and no corners have been cut. Following a sherry soirée to welcome visitors, the guests are ushered upstairs into the artist's former studio to enjoy a sad song from the lovely voice of Nina Lainville, who later becomes Pauline Viardot Garcia.

The play itself explores identity through its central characters, Andrew Wincott as the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Frederick (later Lord) Leighton and his muse, the budding actress Dorothy Dene (nee Ada Pullin).

Tegen Hitchens in this role looks as if she could have walked straight out of a Leighton canvas. She also has fun portraying the insecure actress, who is desperately trying to do an Eliza Doolittle and escape her cockney origins in search of fame, fortune and happiness.

There is more than a hint of romance in the relationship, as the artist humours and cajoles his muse, hardly helped by an unfortunate coterie.

Playwright Katherine Tozer doubles as lonely Mrs Barrington, an unpublished writer and neighbourhood bore of the first order, who tests the artist's patience as a means of escaping at least briefly from her faithless husband.

Much worse though is Marco Gambino's Nino Costa, a deeply unpleasant man who cruelly belittles Miss Dene then takes verbal pot-shots at his host. This begs the question as to how the mis-matched pair could have sustained a three decade long friendship, when any sane man would long ago have cut the insulting Italian, weighed down by a chip of epic proportions on his shoulder.

Where The Muse hits the bullseye is in depicting the relationship between the artist and his muse, showing their inter-dependence and the way in which they try to bridge an impossibly wide social gulf with affection and friendship. It also addresses questions of gender and immigration politics, both of which seem timely today.

In Katherine Tozer's 2017 version, the evening builds to the lightbulb moment when the seeds are sewn for "Flaming June". As the lights go down and applause rains down, the guests are invited behind the scenes to view the real thing, making a short London visit from its unlikely home in Puerto Rico.

After song, drama, sherry and a chance to view one of the most beautiful paintings of a great movement, nobody could fail to go home both happy and inspired.