Friday, February 05, 2010

This week Owen and I made one of our infrequent visits to the Old Vic to see David Grindley's revival of John Guare's SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION. This is it's first London revival since 1992 when Stockard Channing repeated the role she originated on Broadway and later went on to recreate in the film version. It's rare that a performer gets to achieve this but hers was a remarkable performance. Truth to tell, time has caught up with the play's action but it still rattles around your head days after seeing it.

Guarre based his play on a real-life occurrence when he was told by friends that a young, well-spoken black man appeared at their door unannounced claiming to be a university friend of their children as well as the son of Sidney Poitier. Later he read that the same man, David
Hampton, had appeared in several homes doing the same thing, had milked thousands of dollars from the families and had been arrested for fraud. Guare used this case as the basis for a play exploring the possible reasons behind his actions and the light it shone on race and class in the America in the 1980s.

His lead characters are Ouisa and Flan Kittredge, well-heeled Upper East Siders and seemingly prosperous from Flan's job as a private art dealer for wealthy anonymous patrons. One night, trying to woo an investment from a wealthy South African, they are interrupted by the arrival of Paul, bleeding from a knife wound, claiming to be a friend of their children at university and asking for help after being mugged. Any anxiety is mitigated by him knowing so much about them and their kids. He also tells them he has nowhere to stay as the plane his father is flying in on has been held up until the next morning... oh and his father is Sidney Poitier. Soon he has charmed them into
letting him cook for them and regales them with stories of his father's next job - directing the film version of CATS.Flan and Ouisa give him a bed for the night - but not before their South African prey has promised them the money they were after. Their pleasure of their new house guest is tarnished only when Ouisa checks to make sure he's awake to meet his father's plane - and finds he has sneaked a male prostitute into the room. Both are thrown out.

However Ouisa is haunted by the visit - even more so when their friends say they have also been visited by the stranger who has fed them the same line - and taken the cash offered. Ouisa and Flan set out to discover exactly who he is...

Although Guarre's play is in itself a bit of a flimsy affair, he has written a fantastic role in Ouisa. She gets all the best lines, is the most rounded and the only character who has any sort of a dramatic arc. Starting off the play as a brittle NY socialite, sardonic and snobbish, she ends the play genuinely shaken by her experience - realising how removed from life she is. She also is able to see that Paul and her husband aren't that dissimilar - both chasing money to keep their lives afloat.

Although she missed the natural warmth and charisma of Stockard Channing, Lesley Manville played the role well. Her dry, wry, wit sparkled at the start to be slowly replaced by a rueful sadness and she handled Ouisa's big moments well. She fully deserved the cheers when she took her bow.

Anthony Head played Flan with his usual elegant flair but sadly I felt that Obi Abili didn't have the acting skills to fully bring Paul to life. This character has to charm the audience as well as his upper-class prey and Abili's over-the-top delivery prevented this. I saw Adrian Lester play the role opposite Channing and he was excellent. I think one of the problems is that Guarre himself seems to have an ambivalent view of Paul. The play skews him to be some sort of deus-ex-machina in the Kittredge's lives - showing them how empty their lives have become - but then this anti-hero stance is undercut by the effect his machinations causes on the lives of a young couple he leeches off in Greenwich Village. They were played by Sarah Goldberg and Luke Neal in the best supporting performances of the evening.But then it's this ambiguity that does leave the play and it's themes bouncing around in your mind afterwards. The upper class are shown to be as much in thrall to celebrity as is the man who is trying to crash that lifestyle and although so much of the play has dated - the duped families could now easily check to see whether Sidney Poitier even had a son using the Internet! - I can see why Grindley would think it right to revive now with it's ideas of celebrity being seen to be a way up the social scale, the upper classes putting their ideas of race to one side when confronted by a personable black man with a university background and the precariousness of basing your life on the marketplace.
A special mention to the curved Rothko-like set of Jonathan Fensom which was always visually arresting. David Grindley's production moved along at a rare old clip and it was hard to believe that so much could be covered in 90 minutes.

Guare himself had his own problems with David Hampton. He attempted to win over some of the play's takings when it opened on Broadway and was arrested but not charged for leaving threatening messages on Guare's answerphone. Hampton gained a celebrity of sorts but not the one he most craved. He died of an AIDS-related illness aged only 39 in the early 2000s.

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