Updated: Saturday, 22nd February 2020 @ 5:50am

Review: Art @ The Lowry, Salford

Review: Art @ The Lowry, Salford

| By Oscar Lynch

Art is an enduringly popular comedy, telling the story of three friends who fall out when one buys a painting. This production at The Lowry – starring Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson – follows on from last year's Old Vic revival and will tour nationwide from February until June.   

Retired dermatologist Serge (Havers) purchases a piece of contemporary art – a painting consisting of few diagonal white lines, on a white background. A bold, magnetic piece of work, or ‘piece of white shit?’. The play concerns the reactions of his lifelong friends Marc (Lawson) and Yvan (Tompkinson) to the painting, and the arguments that ensue. 

Lasting 90 minutes and with no interval, the production is tight and swiftly paced. Yasmina Reza’s dialogue – translated from its original French into English by Christopher Hampton – remains as witty as ever.

The original UK production that premiered on the West End in 1996 was a huge hit, though at the time the pointed commentary on the decadence of the art world likely felt more relevant. Modern art is accepted, more or less, and the Young British Artists are young no more.

WITTY: The plot is as amusing as ever

What we’re left with is a comedic exploration of friendship, a darkly humorous study not just in how the characters view the painting, but how they view each other and themselves.

Director Ellie Jones follows on from Matthew Warchus’ West End original, cleverly positioning characters to present the audience with a new focal point. The off-white set, with clean lines and minimalist decor, allows for the characters to stand out.

Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design works particularly well, regularly offering different perspectives on both the characters and the painting.

Havers as Serge is a particularly inspired piece of casting, all airs and graces and inch-perfect with each gesture. During the character’s more frantic moments, he delivers with enough edge to combat the abrasive Lawson as Marc – the engineer who sees no rational sense in buying a blank canvas for £200,000.

LACKING: The chemistry just isn't always there

Early on, Tompkinson is suitably pliable as Yvan, his gurning rubber face stretched by his loyalties to both sides.

Later in the play his performance evolves into something more profound – comedically, as he delivers a hilarious monologue on pleasing the family at his impending wedding, and dramatically, breaking down at the prospect of losing a 25-year friendship.

Ultimately, it’s a production that rises and falls on the performances of its three cast members. As individuals they are excellent, but we never get a genuine sense of the ‘ties that bind’ the trio.

It’s difficult to picture these three very different personalities as lifelong friends, and the physical interactions feel a little inauthentic. While each individual is a bold acrylic stripe, this friendship we’re meant to care so much about is a faint watercolour.

It makes for an enjoyable and frequently funny evening, abundant in artistry but perhaps lacking in chemistry.

*Art is showing at The Lowry until Saturday, 31 March. You can buy tickets HERE.