Well, it isn’t a cliché for nothing. Life does indeed imitate art with the West End return - little more than a year after it finished its first post-National Theatre run at the Old Vic - of Life x 3.
As you watch this new quartet – David Haig, Belinda Lang, David Yelland and Serena Evans having replaced originals Mark Rylance, Harriet Walter, Oliver Cotton and Imelda Staunton - tackle Art author Yasmina Reza’s enigmatic comedy of manners about two astrophysicists and their wives, you can’t help but sharing a sinking feeling of déja vu (or perhaps that should be trésja vu) with the characters.
The evening begins with a fraught Henri and Sonia, who are trying to coax their whining six-year-old to sleep when the doorbell rings. Enter Hubert, Henri’s older and much more successful colleague, and his stay-at-home wife Ines, who have arrived for a dinner party a day earlier than expected. With the plaintive cries of the child coming from the bedroom and nothing but cheesy Wotsits and chocolate fingers coming from the bare kitchen, dinnerless disaster is a certainty.
During the scenes that follow, we’re presented with three possibilities for what happens next. In each, the bare bones are the same – Sonia is caught unawares in her bathrobe, Hubert reveals that another paper similar to one that Henri has been working on for three years has just been published, Ines discovers a ladder in her stocking – but the characters’ reactions to these situations, and thus our interpretations of them, alter slightly.
I’m still intrigued by Reza’s dramatic structure as well as this sophisticated Frenchwoman’s wonderfully humorous details and wry observations about life and the cosmos, while the x3 kicker that “some people can cope with life, some people can’t” still weighs in effectively.
However, the shortcomings of the slight script (adapted by Christopher Hampton) – never quite getting under the surface of these characters – also remain apparent. And this time round, though Mark Thompson’s sleek living room set and Hugh Vanstone’s pulsing lighting effects are the same, Jennie Darnell’s production is nowhere near as slick as Matthew Warchus’s original.
Unlike Art (packing up in January 2003 after 27 cast changes and more than six years in the West End), Life x 3 is not actor-proof. Here, the men – in particular, Haig (surely one of our most gifted comic actors), whose exasperatedly hangdog Henri is an apologetic delight – bring fresh and compelling interpretations to their roles; but the women appear pale, and infinitely less amusing, shadows of their predecessors.
This production concerns two science
academics and their wives. Henri, played with gusto by David Haig, and
Sonia, a versatile Belinda Lang, are trying to get their six-year-old son
to sleep and enjoy a quiet night in. Cue the arrival of Hubert and Ines,
turning up one evening, a day earlier than expected for a dinner party.
And with only cheesy Wotsits and Cadbury's Chocolate Fingers in the house -
both of which are needed to bribe the aforementioned son to sleep - it could
spell dinner party disaster.
What follows, as the title of the play indicates, are three half-hour
versions of how the evening might pan out. There are some constants: Hubert tells Henri that a fellow academic has just published a paper on the same subject which Henri himself has been working on for three years; the interruptions from the unseen and unsleeping son; the overtures from Hubert to Henri's wife; the ladder in Ines’ stocking.
But Reza's point is that different people handle life's little stresses and
strains in very different ways. Henri and Ines are the emotional creatures,
Hubert and Sonia the factual, clinical and sometimes cruel observers.
Haig's Henri ranges from over-stressed to pragmatic; Lang's Sonia from
hard-nosed to wholly-supportive. Hubert, played by David Yelland, is
condescending and manipulative, while Serena Evans' down-trodden Ines has
a level of outspokenness directly related to her alcohol consumption.
It's an entertaining 90 minutes, with no interval, and the concept of one scene
played out three different ways is an intriguing one. However, the actual
nitty-gritty of the story and the relationships between the hosts and their
guests doesn’t prove so interesting.
Where the Art argument between three friends over whether a seemingly blank canvas constitutes art provided much food for thought, this dinner party - just like Henri and Sonia - proffers only nibbles.
- Elizabeth Ferrie (reviewed at Birmingham Repertory Theatre)