The premise is simple: three friends, one white painting. When contemporary art lover Serge (Nigel Havers) presents his new purchase — a £200,000 white painting — his old friend and delightful critic Marc (Denis Lawson) takes exception to such extravagance. With poor Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson) caught in the middle of the battle, will the three friends reconcile and live amicably with their different views?
Originally written by Yasmina Reza and then translated by Christopher Hampton, Art is described as a comedy. Though undoubtably witty, it’s not laugh out loud. It’s more observational than hilarious, and a lot of the laughs come from moments of bad language or outbursts of anger. The funniest section by far is Tompkinson’s rant about his family feud: the audience sees a man tipped over the edge and he performs this with all the mania and desperation of a man just a few weeks away from marriage.
The three stars of the show are beautifully cast, directed well by Ellie Jones to work collectively together. Nigel Havers is delightfully smug and pretentious, whilst Denis Lawson contrasts Havers’ with his portrayal of an exasperated friend (and perhaps as the voice of the audience, who surely can’t see the £200k merit in the white painting). My favourite of the three, Stephen Tompkinson, brings a more human touch. His character is the most believable, the most likeable and the character we feel sorry for as he is pulled and pushed between his strong-willed friends. It’s a great journey for all three characters and we learn much about them throughout the play.
The fact does still remain — how long can a play about the merits of a white painting continue to hold an audience’s attention? Clocking in at 90 minutes and no interval, Art’s timing is impeccable. It’s long enough to hammer home the baffling arguments triggered by a simple difference of opinion, whilst displaying the message that, really, is life just a white painting we needn’t worry quite so much about?
Catch Art at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 7 April.