Review: Portraits, Finborough Theatre

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Originally written for The Public Reviews.

The Finborough Theatre, in its ongoing project of rediscovery, has dug another play out of the archives, this time William Douglas Home’s 1987 dramatisation of the latter years of artist Augustus John’s life. Taking place between 1944 and 1961, the play plots John’s life along the points of three significant portraits, those of General Bernard Montgomery, artist Matthew Smith and designer Cecil Beaton. While the Finborough’s archaeological efforts undoubtedly unearth some forgotten gems, these are inevitably surrounded by a good few dusty fossils, with Portraits leaning more towards the latter category than the first.

That is not to say, however, that there are not some sparkling moments in this revival, nicely timed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of John’s death. Like the artist himself, Douglas Home is blessed with some dream subjects, given not only Montgomery, Smith and Beaton but also the playwright George Bernard Shaw to furnish with words. As would only be expected from such a line-up of great minds there is some dazzling dialogue, with a series of sharp and witty exchanges providing the majority of the night’s entertainment.

As the play progresses into the second act, however, Portraits becomes a painful rendering of one man’s slow and tortured descent into old age and depression rather than a depiction of a great artist. Although making for sometimes excruciating viewing, this rapid downhill slope does wring some excellent performances out of the cast. Peter Marinker’s deteriorating John is a broken, drunk, slurring shell of his previous self, making an artwork of despair. Kristin Milward, meanwhile, in the role of John’s long-suffering partner and model Dorelia, turns around a slightly forced first act performance into a heart-breaking portrayal of a woman at the end of her emotional tether.

There is strong support from David Gooderson as a suitably eccentric George Bernard Shaw, complete with rather eccentric facial hair, and from Matt Barber in the regrettably small role of Joe, a fresh-faced young Guards’ Colonel who accompanies Montgomery to his sitting. It is Hayward Morse, however, who steals the show with his stunning feat of transformation as John’s three sitters, moving effortlessly from a steely Montgomery to a gentle Smith to a delightfully camp Beaton, completely inhabiting each successive role.

Unfortunately, solid performances cannot save Douglas Home’s play from a conspicuous lack of cohesiveness. One running thread is John’s shifting attitude towards war and his developing pacifism, as his encounter with Joe and the young colonel’s subsequent death prompts a disillusionment that eventually blooms into fully fledged support for unilateral nuclear disarmament. This all gives fuel to some thought-provoking debates about the ethics of war, but any hopes that this theme might tie the play’s disparate threads into some sort of unity are soon dashed.

For all its stimulating discussion, Portraits feels frustratingly static, remaining stalled at a standstill or else ambling along in no particular direction. Alex Marker mans the helm of a production that is for the most part assured in its smooth execution but that lacks a solid foundation in the form of script. Rather than a rich and nuanced oil portrait, Douglas Home’s play is a faded watercolour; pleasant enough to look at from certain angles, but lacking in substance and definition.

Portraits runs at the Finborough Theatre until 22 August.

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