Studies For a Portrait

Daniel Reitz
Good Night Out
Oval Theatre
(2008)

Production photo

In a beach house in the Hamptons internationally famous artist Julian Barker is painting against the clock for he has pancreatic cancer and is driven to complete as much work as possible. We never actually see his work, though three evocative panels at the rear of Sophie Mosburger's simple set and a swirl of paint on the stage cloth suggest a romantic palette and a swirlingly impressionistic skill, all beautifully lit by Richard Williamson.

You can believe that Martin Bendel's assured, harsh-voiced Julian, standing back to appraise his work or shaking a brush to add a splatter of paint to the canvas is the confident self-possessed artist whose work comes first. But he is also a man who has a sense of duty and responsibility to his lover Chad, a much younger male partner of some five years.

Chad is a blonde economics graduate who was an underwear photographic model when the painter met him. He seems devotedly supportive, though something suggests that there might be someone else in his life as well as Julian. It is some time before we discover that there is indeed another young model, Justin (Michael Parr), so young that he has only recently graduated, who is now also ensconced in the house as Chad's lover in a sort of ménage a trois.

Brodie Bass plays Chad with a cool charm that can freeze to icy control when crossed, but he also suggests a genuine warmth of feeling for the painter that belies the idea of him simply being out for his own financial advantage. But there has been another lover important in Julian's life, Marcus. His much longer relationship - eighteen years - brought to an end by Chad who, on being taken up by Julian, refused to tolerate Marcus staying in and sharing life with them. David Price's Marcus, who had himself been a painter, seems to have lost control of his life since and has never recovered from the separation from someone whom he still loves.

From the interaction of these four characters Reitz looks at both competing claims to inherit the painter's considerable wealth - most of which goes to a specially set up charitable foundation to avoid taxation, and their claims to part of the cultural inheritance - and to some extent creators of it for Marcus worked with Julian and for five years Chad has been the only subject of his work, though Justin contrives an involvement. While these aspects provide most of the plot, the play also explores the ways in which the pattern of loving changes, how circumstances chance what is acceptable or tolerated.

Despite the terminal illness that is always a shadow in this play, it is leavened with humour and though its occasional bitchiness may sometimes draw on the homosexual ménage, its story is one that could easily by told of heterosexual lovers. This is not a play just for a gay audience. Adam Spreadbury-Maher's direction draws fresh and convincing performances from his cast and makes transitions to scene to scene contribute a great deal to our understanding of the characters and the atmosphere of the play with a particularly effective use of appropriate choice of music.

This production, with a partly different cast, had a successful sold-out run earlier this year at the White Bear Theatre. It is at Oval House until 13th June 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton