LaBute’s big blun­der

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&books -


Trafal­gar Stu­dios , Lon­don SW1A 2DY

SOME­TIMES YOU be­come so con­scious of a pro­duc­tion, you can hardly see the play. This is one of those times.

It fea­tures four Bri­tish com­edy stars — ok, not stars, but three fa­mous, one not so fa­mous faces, who have been cast in this play mainly be­cause of their TV ap­pear­ances — and Amer­ica’s hottest play­wright. Well, not as hot as he was, but still, one of the best of his gen­er­a­tion.

Neil LaBute’s latest, bru­tal of­fer­ing is the sec­ond in a tril­ogy about how we judge — and are judged — by the way we look, as op­posed to the way we are. The big­otry here is not racism but fatism.

In the, erm, volup­tuous ti­tle role, Ella Smith plays He­len, a young, sweet­na­tured wo­man who falls for good na­tured Tom (Robert Peep Show Webb). But Tom’s fel­low of­fice work­ers — the vi­cious Carter (Kris My Fam­ily Mar­shall) and the vac­u­ous Jean­nie ( Gavin and Stacey’s Joanna Page) — give him hell about the size of the girl he’s dat­ing. Carter be­cause “dudes” like them should go out with dudesses and not over-eaters, and Jean­nie be­cause she hates Tom for re­ject­ing her for He­len.

LaBute’s spe­cial­ity is in al­low­ing his char­ac­ters to say the things most peo­ple would only dare think. But it is in the say­ing that this pro­duc­tion — di­rected by the au­thor — falls down.

Apart from Mar­shall, who has a strong the­atri­cal pedi­gree, this cast — par­tic­u­larly the too dif­fi­dent Webb — are never at ease with the rhythms and man­ner­isms of LaBute’s Amer­i­can di­a­logue. This is far from LaBute’s best play but it de­serves more than this cast who are mostly cho­sen for all the wrong rea­son. ( Tel: 0870 060 6632)

LEE HALL is alive to the guilty, mid­dle-class plea­sure of watch­ing the work­ing classes broaden their cul­tural hori­zons. So in his com­edy — partly fic­tional but mostly fac­tual, about the coalmin­ers of the pit town of Ash­ing­ton, whose paint­ings be­came an art move­ment of the ’30s and ’40s — mid­dle-class pa­tro­n­is­ing at­ti­tudes get it with both bar­rels.

As with his hit Billy El­liot, Hall avoids sen­ti­men­tal­ity and uses com­edy to re­make his favourite po­lit­i­cal point — that cul­ture is class­less, or should be. Much of the plea­sure in The Pit­men Painters comes from bridg­ing the di­vide be­tween Ash­ing­ton’s all-male, work­ing-class art ap­pre­ci­a­tion group and Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), the posh tu­tor who has been hired by his pupils to teach them “what to think” when they see a paint­ing. In­stead of lec­tur­ing, Lyon gets his class to cre­ate. The stun­ning re­sults re­flect the pit­men’s lives above and be­low ground. The art es­tab­lish­ment comes knock­ing.

Hall lets us bask in the feel­good fac­tor of min­ers over­com­ing class prej­u­dices un­til Oliver Kil­bourn (Christo­pher Con­nel) makes a dig­ni­fied at­tack on Lyon for pre­sent­ing their work merely as ev­i­dence that any­one can paint.

Max Robert’s pro­duc­tion par­tic­u­larly scores in al­low­ing the art, the space and si­lence to cre­ate its own drama. And al­though Hall has cov­ered much of this ter­ri­tory be­fore, much like the pic­tures in his play, this work of art is en­light­en­ing, ac­ces­si­ble and rather beau­ti­ful. ( Tel: 020 7452 3000)

THE OLD Vic’s Kevin Spacey said Peter Hall’s Bath pro­duc­tion “had to be seen in Lon­don”. But he would say that, wouldn’t he, es­pe­cially be­cause Spacey was look­ing to fill the hole left by Sam Men­des’s can­celled Ham­let and The Tem­pest. He was right: Hall’s ter­rific pro­duc­tion is an­chored by Tim Pig­got-Smith’s Pro­fes­sor Hig­gins and sent soar­ing by Michelle Dock­ery’s firstly sour, then serene El­iza Doolittle. ( Tel: 0870 060 6628)


Cottes­loe, Na­tional Theatre, Lon­don SE1


Old Vic, Lon­don SE1


Tom (Robert Webb) and He­len (Ella Smith) share a meal in Neil LaBute’s dar­ing com­edy, Fat Pig

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