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Studies for a Portrait

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Having originally been presented in 2009 by Good Night Out Presents at the White Bear Theatre and then at the Oval House, Daniel Reitz’s Studies for a Portrait now finds itself in the equally intimate surrounds of the King’s Head.

Exploring issues of art, fame, legacy and ownership the play tells the story of renowned artist Julian Barker (John Atterbury) who, dying of pancreatic cancer and with only months to live, escapes to his Hampton home with his partner Chad (Travis Oliver). Here, while Julian drinks and paints, Chad fields calls from everyone who wants a piece of Julian’s legacy while attempting to set up the Julian Barker Foundation (a tax haven for Chad). Chad must also deal with Julian’s ex Marcus (Simon Wright) and his own much younger boyfriend Justin (Tristan Summers).

As the lynchpin of the piece, Travis Oliver manages the emotional complexity of his character with aplomb moving smoothly between his roles as loving partner to keeper of the legacy. Some of his best scenes are those shared with Simon Wright who plays the forlorn ex-boyfriend skilfully treading the line between movingly helpless and frustratingly pathetic.

John Atterbury’s well-presented, progressively weakening Julian never once loses his power over all the characters and thanks to the complexity of Reitz’s script we are never sure whether that power comes from love or money. Kate Guinness’ set is simple and doesn’t distract but Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s direction might have found a way to use the space more effectively especially in the longer monologues which, while relevant, became stagnant rather than revealing in the open space.

All in all this production does well to bring to life Reitz’s convoluted exploration of what we leave behind us.

- Laura Norman 

NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from May 2009, and this production's run at the Oval House Theatre.

When Daniel Reitz’s Studies for a Portrait premiered at the White Bear Theatre Club earlier this year, it was to few, but positive, reviews. Now snapped up by the nearby Oval House as its main summer production, Reitz’s play is proving it can pull in a larger audience.

Julian Barker is an ageing painter of Baconesque style and status who, on learning he has pancreatic cancer, retires to his East Hamptons summerhouse to live out his final months with partner, Chad. The couple’s peace is disturbed, however, first by the arrival of Chad’s younger boyfriend, an underwear model called Justin, and then by Marcus, a lapsed artist and Julian’s former flame of 18 years.

Legend, lover, boyfriend and muse: Reitz delights in the untidy dynamics between these four characters and it’s testament to his writing that he's unafraid to show the men at their least, as well as their most, attractive. Our sympathies shift, sometimes even mid-scene.

Martin Bendel and David Price reprise their roles as the old boys, with Price in particularly subtle form as Marcus: whinging and sympathetic in turn. Meanwhile, new to the Oval House cast, Brodie Bass and Michael Parr battle it out as the younger bodies beautiful.

And they are. Beautiful, that is, bringing even greater pathos to Julian and Marcus’s respective falls (physical and material) from grace.

American accents could be tightened and, despite some fine choices, the soundtrack made less intrusive between scenes. But these are quibbles.

Reitz can be painfully funny at times, as when Julian is interrupted at his easel. “I’m on deadline,” he quips crossly. “Emphasis on dead.” And while the ugly business of dying happens mostly off stage, on-stage exchanges are uglier - particularly the bitchy stand-offs between Chad and Marcus. Never is it quite clear what’s at stake: love, money or attention. But just as a triptych of three Baconesque canvasses make up the backdrop to Sophie Mosberger’s simple but striking set, Julian’s artwork is never far away from the conversation.

Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher lists new gay writing as his primary focus, but is this simply a ‘gay play’? Certainly, the set-up allows for the sort of complex dynamic that would just get bogged down in moral discussion were it a heterosexual ménage à quatre. But the emotion on display is universal, and, as Chad finds out to his cost, a cycle fated to repeat itself again and again.

- Nancy Groves


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