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Art in Heaven
Published on Saturday, 11 May 2013

Promotional Image

2 stars

Phoenix Brighton (venue website)
4, 11 May, 4:00pm-5:20pm, 6:00pm-7:20pm, 8:00pm-9:20pm; 5-6, 12 May, 3:00pm-4:20pm, 5:00pm-6:20pm; 8-10 May, 6:00pm-7:20pm, 8:00pm-9:20pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Warning: Contains strong language.
 World Premiere.
 Suitable for age 16+ only.

Oh, I really wanted to like this play. In fact, I really did like a lot about this play: it has a cleverly immersive premise, some deeply committed acting, and an energetic fluidity, which at its best swept the performance along on a whirlwind of movement and words. But unfortunately, that dramatic restlessness had a downside that I simply can’t ignore… because for every highlight, there was another moment when I honestly didn’t have a clue what was going on.

In essence, Art In Heaven is a study of three female artists’ lives: Gwen John, Georgia O’Keefe and Frida Kahlo.  I can’t say their work is familiar to me, so it’s fitting that the action is framed within a modern-day art class, with us – the audience – the ones who are there to learn.  A nameless woman, portrayed with magnificent other-worldliness by an impressive Angela Ferns, gives voice to our questions about the three women’s work.  In the process she bickers amusingly with the domineering Harvey, an aficionado of a completely different style of artist – the controversial Jeff Koons.

But that, I’m afraid, is where it all goes slightly wrong.  One man – Robin Humphreys – plays not just Harvey, but also Koons, and all of the female artists’ suitors as well.  Humphreys is a fine actor, capable of subtle changes in tone, with playful flirtation in one scene almost imperceptibly becoming predatory sexuality in the next.  But it simply wasn’t clear enough when he switched between roles – leaving me perpetually confused whether these three women were competing for one man, or if Humphreys’ omnipresence was merely drawing a parallel between entirely separate tales.

I learned more from the narratively straightforward sections: when Fearns, playing an earnest reporter, chased Koons with a microphone, or when lecturer Sylvia Vickers interviewed a proud but tragic Kahlo.  I'd have liked to have heard more from Vickers; she brought a calming presence to the scenes she appeared in, and struck the right tone of matronly bossiness in her interactions with the audience.

There are lots of plays which – like a pointillist painting – look good from a distance, but lose coherence when you study them too closely.  This one has the opposite problem.  Under the magnifying glass, there were many beautifully-crafted moments: the shocking discovery that Georgia was going blind, or a breathtaking scene where the artists circle round and round like a human kaleidoscope.  But when I step back and look at the whole of the picture, I realise with regret that it taught me little – either about these artists or about my own life.

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