Girl With a Pearl Earring

David Joss Buckley, based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier
The Theatre Royal, Haymarket
(2008)

Publicity image: detail from the Vermeer painting

Girl With A Pearl Earring has already been a bestselling novel and popular movie. Therefore, the producers obviously thought that there was an opportunity to cash in with a stage version of the tale that purports to explain how Vermeer was inspired to paint one of the most famous paintings of its period.

Regrettably, this new version of the story does it few favours, coming across as a kind of 17th century soap opera although that is not quite right either. For whatever reason, adapter David Joss Buckley has decided to use slangy modern language and the anachronisms are then compounded by Joe Dowling, the artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

The body language and movement is also 21st-century so that a shy servant is happy to talk back to her master and, despite her puritanical Protestant upbringing, the teenager hugs both Vermeer and her young admirer Peter.

Adrian Dunbar plays the artist, a dreamy man interested in nothing but his painting. His family is made up of oddities. Perhaps the best drawn is his mother-in-law, a part that gives Sara Kestelman an opportunity to show what a character actress can do with a halfway decent part. She is not only the family matriarch but also her son-in-law's business manager, well able to deal with both emotional and financial problems.

Lesley Vickerage is the frustrated wife who spends her whole life begetting children that will hardly be noticed by her husband. She expresses this directly through the fourth wall after an incident in which their spoiled brat of a daughter Cornelia, played by Flora Spencer-Longhurst, tries to rid the family of her pretty little maid.

Kimberley Nixon, making her West End debut having distinguished herself on screen in Cranford and appearing in the soon-to-be-released film version of Noel Coward's Easy Virtue, plays Griet.

The maid certainly has a lot to put up with. She hated by Cornelia who makes it a life's work to play tricks the maid. In addition, the girl's family is threatened by the Plague, which takes away her sister then mysteriously disappears; she has to fight off the lecherous advances of Vermeer's patron, played by Niall Buggy, and then is forced to choose between marriage to her childhood sweetheart and sitting through to the completion of the painting.

None of this makes very much sense as for two hours we witness the creation of a masterpiece, while being asked to debate the question of whether the young girl is eventually impregnated by the artist with more than just a painful earring.

There is little doubt that the person who comes out of this production with most credit is Peter Mumford. The set and lighting designer, with the assistance of costume designer Fotini Dimou, lovingly recreates a series of pastiches of the work of the time on a revolve that moves between kitchen, salon and studio.

With a paperback and DVD for competition, one fears that the producers might ultimately be pleased that this production is restricted to only a six week run.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher