Up for Grabs

David Williamson

Up for Grabs is a comedy about the relationships between money and greed, unhappy couples and expensive art. It shares many traits with Yasmina Reza's Art as it considers the commodification of a canvas.

It is written by David Williamson who is generally regarded as the top playwright in Australia. His director in this production, Laurence Boswel,l also has a great reputation following an eclectic career that has included work with the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as a well-regarded Hamlet and Ben Elton's stage version of Popcorn.

Within Jeremy Herbert's Cubist set, complete with video backdrops, the story of a young art entrepreneur's attempts to persuade three different bidders to buy the last privately-owned Jackson Pollock in the world can be very funny, if a little cruel. The great Abstract Expressionist is at one stage described as Jack the Dribbler. He is currently very much in fashion in London, as the biopic of his life has also finally made it across the Atlantic. Other modern artists fare little better, with Damian Hirst coming in for much flak.

Loren (Madonna) is the art dealer. She is married to a psychotherapist, Gerry, played by Tom Irwin, who often seems in need of some of his own medicine. It seems a given in this play that marriages will be unhappy power games where money is more important than love. Loren increases the stress levels in the relationship by her increasingly desperate attempts to get rich quick.

For some unexplained reason, she has been commissioned to sell the Pollock rather than a more experienced dealer. She has such confidence in its provenance and value that she underwrites the sale at well above the generally accepted market value. This is where the comedy starts, as she has to avoid losing $2 million while at the same time holding her marriage and sanity together.

The three bidders for the painting are an interesting cross-section of (art) society. There is a coked-up, young couple very reminiscent of the wild pair in Popcorn. They have made their millions on the internet by preying on unhappy couples whose relationships are breaking up. Needless to say, their own is too.

The second couple are old established wealth and in particular, the husband, Manny, played excellently by Michael Lerner, is a sad, very nasty piece of work whose sexual foibles are even more embarrassing than those of the internet gurus - and that is saying something.

The third and perhaps most sympathetic bidder is Dawn Gray (Sian Thomas). She is a frumpish academic who has sold her soul, somewhat reluctantly, for money. She now acts as an art buyer for a large corporation that she hates.

The bulk of the play consists of the ups and downs of the week during which Loren tries to persuade the three buyers to pay $20 million for a painting that is worth far less. This becomes a comic emotional roller-coaster although its comments on life and art tend to be subsumed by the nominal star.

It is a very strange experience seeing Miss Ritchie (Madonna to the pop music world) making her West End stage debut. She is a very beautiful, glittering star who is well used to appearing on a stage. However, her voice is weak and it seems unlikely that those in the cheaper seats would have been able to hear many of her lines clearly. She is also rather strangely cast in this part.

While an actress with good looks is needed, she does not portray the mental strength of a character that has managed to persuade a very hard-nosed art owner to use her to negotiate a sale. Her only defences against major personal attacks are to simper or squeal in fury.

Perhaps this does not matte, as for so many the chance to see an iconic superstar on the London stage is far more important than her performance. In many ways, the play that is going on behind her is of little relevance as her personal aura holds the eye in some magical way.

In theatrical terms, she is horribly upstaged by an excellent piece of character acting by the only English actor in the cast, Sian Thomas. Looking very much like Edvard Munch's painting The Scream, she plays a prim and proper English lady who eventually lets her hair down - literally, with hilarious results.

This is a very interesting evening's Theatre for an assortment of reasons. It is good to see David Williamson produced on a London stage and Laurence Boswell always provides fireworks. Ultimately, for most though the real attraction is the Material Girl herself.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Up for Grabs is playing until 13th July

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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