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Review: Hogarth's Progress (Rose Theatre Kingston)

Keith Allen and Bryan Dick star as the famous painter in Nick Dear's double bill of plays

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Keith Allen and Mark Umbers in Taste of the Town
© Manuel Harlan

What a curious couple of plays these are – and not in a good way. Nick Dear's 1986 effort The Art Of Success was a hit for the RSC when it debuted, a rollicking, rip-roaring yarn about the early, dissolute life of the eighteenth-century painter and printmaker William Hogarth. Thirty years on, and he's picked up where he left off: The Taste Of The Town is his new play, delving into Hogarth's boozy, bawdy later life as a famous artist falling fast. Together, in Anthony Banks' Rose Theatre Kingston double bill, they are Hogarth's Progress.

But progress through this five-hour marathon is painfully slow. Time has not been kind to The Art Of Success and its wildly incoherent story of a painter, an escaped murderer, a loveless prostitute and a revengeful prime minister – how it garnered enough acclaim to earn an Olivier nomination way back when is mystifying. It's simply an enormous mess, with a plot that lacks focus, characters that lack depth, and writing that lacks consistency, veering unexpectedly between floridly elegant and foul-mouthed throughout.

It's never remotely clear what Dear is driving at. Is this simply a spiced-up slice of history, with added whorehouses and heartiness? Or is it attempting a spot of art history with a critique of Hogarth's attitude, economics and art? Or is it, with its litany of dissatisfied female characters, attempting to make a muddled point about representation and ownership? Who knows? In the end, it's too scattergun to be anything but a bore.

Banks' production does the play no favours either – it's sparseness is swallowed up on the Rose's vast stage, shouted out by splodgy video projections and salvaged only slightly by a decent performance from Bryan Dick as a whiny, weary, and extremely horny young Hogarth.

Bryan Dick and Emma Cunniffe The Art of Success
© Manuel Harlan

The same accusations can be levelled at Dear's follow-up The Taste Of The Town, another shapeless journey into squalid, Georgian London that's only marginally more enjoyable than its prequel, thanks largely to Keith Allen, taking over the role of Hogarth in his drunken, cantankerous old age. Here, we see the painter suffering at the hands of a crotchety mother-in-law, an embittered old soldier, and a prissy politician, none of whom think his stuff is any good anymore.

Allen is wonderfully intolerant – he uses the f-bomb about every third word – and there are delectable turns too from Ian Hallard as a slippery art-collecting MP, and from Sylvestra Le Touzel as Hogarth's shrill matriarchal mother-in-law. Again, Banks' direction exacerbates rather than enlightens with its truly bizarre combination of clutter-free staging, sloppy projection and a clangingly unsuitable score of pumping digital harpsichord.

It's a sincerely strange double-bill this. Hogarth might progress, but in which direction and why is a complete mystery.