A new play by a debuting playwright is a rare enough event in the West End. But if the appearance of On the Ceiling at the Garrick Theatre (that follows an ever rarer sighting at the same address of the first play ever by a black British-born playwright there) is therefore a surprise, it's even more surprising, unfortunately, that this play has got this far.
Tried out at Birmingham Rep in May, it's difficult to believe that no one spotted that, for all that it offers an interesting twist on artistic authorship and a neat double act at its centre to propel it forward, it is all premise and no plot. Director Jennie Darnell – who did service as staff director to four casts of the long-running Art – has turned from a play about a blank canvas to a blank play that isn't so much about art as about the artisans who assist in its creation. But regrettably, it is neither as fleet of foot or imagination as that earlier play.
The ceiling of the title is that of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, but we never meet the legendary creator whom history credits with its creation. Instead, the play revolves around two of the workmen who apparently helped to bring it to life, picking up where the inexperienced Michelangelo left off from the "fresco fiasco in the making" that his technical skills were not strong enough to execute. This is a play that’s concerned with the "little people" – the fresco artist Lapo and his apprentice Loti, a former silversmith, who do the work instead, and bitch and banter about their boss while they do so.
Debutant playwright Nigel Planer – who has himself been a lively part of the British comedy scene for the last 25 or so years as founder member of the Comedy Store and Comic Strip clubs and creator of such comic characters as self-important thespian Nicholas Craig and Neil (the hippy from The Young Ones) – provides some good insults for them to throw around. Michelangelo (often referred to as Millie) is "mad as a tadpole's fart", for instance. But his play fatally lacks a dramatic spine and anchor beyond the name-dropping rivalry with fellow contemporary artists like Raphael and Leonardo.
The two actors here – Ron Cook as Lapo and Ralf Little as Loti – do their amiable, even virtuoso, best to kick the script into some semblance of theatrical life, but it stubbornly resists. There's a final scenic revelation, courtesy of Matthew Wright's design, Neil Austin's lighting and Adam Cork's musical underscoring, that eventually puts part of their finished work on display, but we've lost interest long before it appears.