cardiff family

Oliver Hembrough as Mason, Robert Lindsay as Jack,  as Victoria Blunt Lucy and Tara Fitzgerald as Nicola. Pictures: Manuel Harlan 


Birmingham Rep


Every so often along comes a production which reminds you what a magical place a theatre can be and Terry Johnson’s Prism shines on the stage as if lit by one of Jack Cardiff's key lights.

It is a wonderful script from Johnson, who also directs, full of wit and fun, painting an image, an impression of one of the unsung giants of cinema, a brushstroke here, another there, but on a canvas washed with sadness.

This is not the Jack Cardiff, the leading cinematographer of his, or indeed any generation, the “master of light", the “man who makes women look beautiful”, this is Jack Cardiff, the father and husband, whose life is reaching the final credits, struggling with failing memory, the curse of dementia confusing past and present, and living with a constant fear of failing eyesight, of losing the light.

It is a magnificent performance from Robert Lindsay, funny, at times bewildered, unsure of where he is or even why, helplessly searching for simple words, reliving the past in the present, sometimes losing himself in the films he shot, such as The African Queen, or entertaining stars he knew such as Marilyn Monroe. Even his wife Nicola, Nikki, he confuses with Katharine Hepburn, who you suspect was his real true love, while son Mason becomes Humphrey Bogart in a mind drifting between now and then.

It is a mesmerising performance, filling the stage, commanding attention and sympathy in tandem as we join Cardiff on his mind’s moving journey with that cruellest of companions of old age, Alzheimer's.


Jack with his beloved Technicolor prism camera

Oliver Hembrough gives a sympathetic performance as son, Mason. He is finding it as difficult to cope as his father, trying to do his best to get Cardiff to complete his memoirs while, paradoxically, trying to keep him in the present.

In Cardiff’s visits through memory to his past, more vivid, more alive and much easier than trying to remember that day’s breakfast, Mason becomes Bogart, while wife Nicola, who was and probably always will be his PA, becomes Katherine Hepburn.

At times Cardiff’s memory becomes his present and we are transported to the set of The African Queen with his new carer Lucy transformed in the camp into Bogart’s new young wife Lauren Bacall, while Nicola becomes Hepburn in a beautifully nuanced performance from Tara Fitzgerald. She has the look, mannerisms and voice of Hepburn and we get a hint of her relationship with Cardiff, a man who had a reputation with beautiful women which went beyond merely filming and photographing them.

As Nicola she is persuaded by Lucy to let Jack’s life drift where he wants to go, most of the time he thinks she is Hepburn, but there is one moving moment when he calls her Nicki and tells her how much he loves her, until she points out to Lucy he is merely quoting from a movie he once filmed and your heart goes out to her.

Lucy, played by Victoria Blunt, is Jack’s new . . . carer, companion, minder . . . her role is never fully explained apart from persuading him to write his memoirs, keep him happy and keep him out of harm’s way.

She doesn’t like old films, has no real office skills, and very little experience beyond a three day . . . well two and a half really . . . training course and desperately needs the job in the hope she can show she can care for her daughter who has been taken into care. She needs the job and though he won’t admit it, or even know it, Jack needs her.


Jack lost in memory on the set of The African Queen with Tara Fitzgerald

There is a moment when he decides to photograph her, creating beauty on film, leading to an argument and fight with Mason which is a scene whose significance is really seen a little later when the scene is re-enacted word for word except now Lucy has become Marilyn Monroe, and very good she is too, and Mason has become Monroe’s husband Arthur Miller with the same argument and fight although this time the implication has more of a ring of truth.

We end with the light fading on Jack, his family by his side along with his now constant companion, Lucy, given hope that her daughter might yet be returned. It is now beyond merely needing a job, there is an affection, both gaining from the relationship, she has become part of the family.

It has been a roller coast of emotions, laughter, sadness and above all empathy for a son who wants his father’s story to be told, a wife who has lost her husband to the past and a man who has become merely a visitor to the present, becoming ever more distant and lost in his own world.

The set from Tim Shortall is a masterpiece of complex simplicity. The main stage is a garage converted into a den to give Jack a sort of space for his memories with his Technicolor film camera, key lights and spots and portraits of the famous and beautiful on his walls, portraits which dissolve into video images as a backdrop to Jack’s memories with videos designed by Ian William Galloway.

The back wall disappears to leave us in the African jungle filming John Huston’s The African Queen in a scene which even feels hot just watching.

The play’s title, incidentally, refers to the prism in the Technicolor camera, which Mason broke 30 years ago, a camera and prism Jack will talk about at the slightest excuse.

The most difficult job falls to Ben Ormerod as the lighting designer, not that lighting isn’t important in any play, but when the subject is universally known as the “master of light” and talks about light  constantly, even demonstrating it, audiences are likely to take more than a passing interest, and Ormerod has done a fine job from African jungle, to Jack’s set up for portraits, to night and day, past and present – skillfully painting the stage with light.

Prism is a fine play, quite beautifully acted, compelling, compassionate, funny and moving. A night of magic with theatre at its very best. To 12-10-19

Roger Clarke


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