LaBute’s big blunder
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)
THE PITMEN PAINTERS
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