art trio

Nigel Havers as Serge, Denis Lawson as Marc and Stephen Tompkinson as Yvan


Birmingham Hippodrome


Art is one of those nebulous things. We all know it is there, but what is it? What says one pile of bricks is art while another pile is just builder’s rubble?

And how many people “don’t know much about art but know what they like” or in this case, don’t like, indeed who think it is s***!

Serge, Marc and Yvan are three middle aged friends of a quarter century standing. On the face of it they have little in common and we never do find out how or why they become friends.

Serge, played with his delightful charm by Nigel Havers, is a successful Parisienne dermatologist with a failed marriage behind him. He is sophisticated, cultured, urbane, and a bit of an art gallery groupie, and, to be honest, somewhat pretentious.

Denis Lawson’s Marc is a little rougher around the edges, more belligerent, argumentative, a more practical sort, an aeronautical engineer who is not afraid to call a spade a spade.

Then there is Yvan. Stephen Tompkinson is just magnificent at playing losers and life’s inadequates. His Yvan is so careful not to upset, offend or disagree with anyone that he not only sits on the fence, he has taken up residence there.

A former fabric salesman, he is now a reluctant stationery salesman for the uncle of the girl he is about to marry, entering wedlock late in life.


Painting by numbers

Into the lives of this cosy trio comes the painting. Serge has been somewhat taken by a fashionable artist’s work, so he has splashed out 200,000 on one of his paintings, a 5ft x4ft canvas of . . . a . . . well, nothing really, it is just . . . well . . . white.

We never know if it is euros or pounds – not that there is much difference these days – but either way it is a lot of money.

Serge loves his modern masterpiece. Marc sees it, laughs when he hears the price and tells Serge it is a piece of s***.

Marc then tells Yvan who laughs along with him at the ludicrous amount for what is little more than a blank canvas. Yvan then sees the paining, and true to his calling of never knowingly offending, contradicting or arguing with anyone, tells Serge he likes it.

For Serge that is confirmation of his artistic taste, for Marc that is a betrayal, and for the three of them that is the catalyst for soul searching and a test of their friendship as the painting becomes a side show to their egos and frailties.

We learn of Yvan’s troubles with his mother and stepmother, along with his in-laws and fiancée’s stepmother in a magnificent, long tirade of misery.

We discover Yvan has been having therapy, twice a week for six years, that Serge hates Marc’s partner Paula because of the way she waves away cigarette smoke, which leads to a fight, and all manner of hang-ups and criticisms come flooding out as friendship explodes.

And in a worm turning moment Yvan, who is an easy target for the more dominant pair, finally explodes and declares the painting really is s***.

Serge responds by showing his friendship with the pair means more than the painting in what could have been an expensive moment of self-sacrifice. And from that point the only way for the trio is up and, perhaps with a new understanding, the friendships are restored.


A painting similar to the one bought by Serge

The play dates from 1995 in Paris, being translated from the French by Christopher Hampton to open in the West End in 1996, at the height of the YBA era, the Young British Artists movement that was turning the art word upside down with sharks in formaldehyde and an unmade bed to come.

Twenty-two years on the shock value of what masquerades as modern art has long passed, and we are used to highly priced paintings that could be knocked up for a tenner and a trip to B&Q. But even so,200,000 for a white painting . . . you have to laugh, and we did as Marc and Serge argued about modern art, but what we were really seeing was a funny, at times biting, comedy about friendships and in particular, middle aged male friendships.

Mark Thompson’s setting is a masterpiece of brevity. Tall white walls reminiscent of a traditional art gallery or apartments in one of the grander boulevards of Paris, with a single rotating panel which displays a messy painting for Yvan’s home, a traditional paining in the Flemish style for Marc and . . .well nothing for art lover Serge.

Furniture is . . . white, with a modern chair, a traditional one and a rather non-descript, inoffensive comfy chair – it could be our three friends in furniture form – along with a heavy, solid low table that creates a sort of neutral zone.

Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is the other star, picking out paintings, or our trio as the action stops suddenly and, spotlit, they speak individually and directly to the audience, then flooding the stage in an instant as conversation continues as if nothing had happened.

Director Ellie Jones has done a fine job incorporating some wonderful touches and telling glances, and she is not afraid to let silence speak. There are some very funny moments when nothing is said for what seems an age but much is understood..

Yasmina Reza apparently went home and wrote the play after a friend of hers had paid a lot of money to buy a white canvas and invited her round to see it. The canvas involved her in a long discussion, but, as there is only so much you can say about a white canvas, it became far wider ranging.

And that is translated on to the stage where Serge’s painting sparks an argument beyond its initial opening of what is art, to what is friendship.

I suspect that our trio of actors already know the answer to that though and seem to be having the time of their life on stage with an enthusiasm which is infectious.

So, if you know what you like and you like a good laugh with a few thoughtful moments thrown in, then this is for you. Marvellous acting, some very funny lines and a £200,000 painting thrown in. To 26-05-18

Roger Clarke


Art runs at Malvern Theatres from Monday 25th February to Saturday 2nd March, 2019 

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