This is, for sure, one of those Old Vic productions which you will remember occasionally but without the enthusiasm and excitement which first greeted this play twenty years ago.
It is 100% revival.
John Guare's plot is packed with still pertinent themes and the cast clearly rise to the occasion. The set and lighting, are hardly extraordinary. And as you leave the theatre and walk down Waterloo Road just after 9, (there is no interval) there is a lingering doubt that it was quite worth giving up the whole evening to be reminded of some of the play's pretty obvious themes.
Here, in this New York, velvet-red apartment, we are called on to consider race, ponder social status, reflect on the commercialisation of art, face up to homosexuality and, perhaps most demanding of all in such a short time – be taken in by the transformative power of imagination.
A word of congratulations and encouragement though to Obi Abili – who, as Paul, has a wonderful platform to display his obvious talent as the con man par excellence. Posing as the son of Hollywood star Sidney Poitier, Abili rises majestically to the challenge, delivering his lines (much of the play is aimed directly at the audience in story telling mode) with such conviction that it is difficult at all to fault him.
He goes from posh house to rich flat conning everyone as to his true identity because he wants to be like them. But he really means no malice.
Anthony Head (Flan), whose face image dominates the night's programme is the most well know actor but Ouisa (Flan's wife), played by Lesley Manville leads the company with a professionalism and sense of humour which just about hits all the right notes. Only sometimes does she pop out of character and lose the humour which shores her part up.
So Paul is a naughty young man – wanting to be rich and connected and popular and doing anything to get into people's lives to share the experience of those who seem to have so much more than he does. The paradox (hardly revelatory) is that those who seemingly have everything, are probably more unhappy and unfulfilled than he is – underlined by the ridiculous suggestion that Paul is involved in recruiting for a film version of the musical Cats and all those who are conned are thrilled at the possibility that they might get a walk on part!
There are some memorable turns of phrase – particularly from self-deluded Paul who seems to philosophise well above his station when his true identity is revealed ("the death of imagination, what else is paralysis?"/"to face ourselves: that's the hard thing").
Humour is interjected by the portrayal of young adulthood in the guise of the children of those who have been duped. They make their parents look idiotic and we see how crazy, perhaps, we were when we thought we knew everything. But these young actors to the production extra credit.
Strangely enough, the one ridiculous point that stuck in my mind so recently after the trauma of Christmas shopping is the totally true suggestion that the only gift worth offering rich people is a pot of jam. Paul is told "if rich people do something nice for you, you give them a pot of jam" which is why Flan and Ouisa find a pot of the best strawberry in the bouquet Paul sends them as a thank you for letting him dupe them.
Guare says that it took him 51 years to write this play.
In other words, it is the sum total of his life experience up the point that the manuscript was complete. I imagine, were he to update it in light of the current recession (the play was released prior to the great recession of the early 1980s) much would remain relevant to our current times. It's just that revivals rarely have the contemporary topicality that plays of this genre so heavily rely on.