Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 21st May, 2018
When Serge splashes out 200 grand on a white painting, it becomes a bone of contention and causes a rift between him and his two best friends, Marc and Yvan. Or rather, it brings to the surface, resentments and feelings hitherto buried, and the 25-year friendship is in danger of exploding. This welcome revival of Matthew Warchus’s Old Vic production reminds us of how funny Yazmina Reza’s script is, through the prism of Christopher Hampton’s excellent translation. And so, these three middle-aged Frenchmen and their triangular association becomes a searing statement about the nature of friendship, more than a commentary on contemporary art.
Nigel Havers has never been better, in my view, than he is here as the urbane but uptight Serge. He is matched by a magnificent Denis Lawson as the scathing, cynical Marc, and an absolutely brilliant Stephen Tompkinson as the emotional, put-upon Yvan. Tompkinson gets to deliver a lengthy monologue about wedding invitations that is as hilarious as it is long. In fact, the comic timing of all three is impeccable and it is a joy to see these old hands, excelling at their craft.
Mark Thompson’s sparse but stately set serves as the friends’ apartments, suggesting also a gallery space with its bare walls and low furniture, while Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, with its shadows of a Venetian blind, suggests the supposed surface of Serge’s precious painting. Snappy asides from the characters are demarcated by sharp lighting changes, accompanied by the jazz-informed tones of Gary Yershon’s ultra-cool music.
It’s a breath-taking hour and a half, of bitter backbiting and savage rejoinders. An act of selflessness on the part of Serge salvages the trio – they will live to squabble another day – and furthermore, Marc is brought to his own understanding of what the painting signifies.
Like an actor on a stage, the painter covering a canvas is transient. Serge’s white canvas reminds us we are all figures moving through a space, and then we are gone. It’s a real punch in the gut from a show that has already made our sides ache with laughter.