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Review Round-up: Six Degrees Separates Critics?

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Six Degrees of Separation, a revival of John Guare’s wildly successful 1990 play based on the quasi-true story of real-life conman David Hampton, opened at the Old Vic Theatre last week.

David Grindley directs the 90-minute production, which centres on charismatic African-American swindler Paul (Obi Abili) who shows up on the lavish Manhattan doorstep of the rich, white Kittredges (Anthony Head and Lesley Manville), and convinces them he's the son of Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier.

The majority of overnight critics reacted rather mildly to Grindley’s adaptation compared to the raft of acclamations that greeted its premiere 20 years ago. Many were seemingly more enamoured with Jonathan Fensom’s Rothko-esque set design than the action taking place upon it. The primary grumbles labelled the play "dated" and questioned its "credibility", though there was praise for Grindley's "stunningly well-directed" production and the performances of the principals.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “While now seeming ever so slightly passé, Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare’s brilliant play of the early 1990s, still whisks you into a maelstrom of snobbery, racism, art as a commodity, rebellion among the offspring and social satire … The double-sided Kandinsky still hovers above, but Jonathan Fensom’s sleek apartment design now creates a wall-to-wall Mark Rothko deep purple cocoon that is punctured with changes of location and general upset … With a droll and stylish Lesley Manville as the Manhattanite Ouisa, Anthony Head as her husband Flan, and new boy Obi Abili as the intruder Paul, the play still stings and snaps, but it’s not the same. The real-life hoaxer, David Hampton, died of Aids in 2003, thus killing another element in the play’s appeal; this kind of thing could still be happening. One really clever thing about the play, smartly directed by David Grindley, is that it springs back on itself, retaining a current vivacity as well as an anecdotal fascination. It’s wonderful how the stage keeps filling with new people … It’s a wry, witty play – good to see the London theatre keeping faith in Guare and Wallace Shawn, two outstanding contemporary American dramatists … densely enjoyable at just 90 minutes running time, and with more than a passing appeal to funders and liberal-minded sponsors everywhere.”
  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “In David Grindley's stunningly well-directed revival of the 1992 John Guare hit, Six Degrees of Separation, the designer, Jonathan Fensom, has had the inspired idea of wrapping the proceedings in the surround of a curving Rothko-esque wall … It's often very witty, not least about what passes for wit and knowing art-chat amongst these people. But the production understands how the play – with its presentational devices, its non-chronological revelations about the black boy's background and widespread effect – constitutes a kind of darkly comic psychomachia via which a whole way of ostensibly well-meaning liberal life is placed under the microscope … The acting is extraordinarily fine. Lesley Manville superbly captures the brittle hostess's brightness, while letting you see flashes of the underlying loneliness … As her husband, Anthony Head is bursting with a demonstrative energy … Obi Abili slightly overdoes the command with which, after descending on them as a ‘mugged’ victim, Paul takes charge of the evening … But by the time we see him cruelly hoodwinking a hard-up pair of students, Abili is thrillingly on-song … Certainly, this rigorously assured revival make one feel that hitherto we have underestimated Six Degrees.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (three stars) – “The play is a comedy with pretensions. It never quite twists the knife. A modern satirist might have been crueler … Was Six Degrees the last significant Western play to be written without reference to mobiles? … Obi Abili plays Paul, the young conman. Anthony Head and Lesley Manville play the modern art dealers who are deceived by image and hype. Mr. Abili needs to concentrate harder on his diction. Many words are lost. Miss Manville's projection is also a little muddy at times. She gives her character a grand, throaty voice whereas something a little sharper, more sarcastic, in short less English, might work better. She finds some delicate moments of self-doubt, though. Playwright Guare indulged himself with a large cast for what is really a boutique satire - complete with a brief scene of male nudity. The Old Vic, with its lovely big auditorium and new-sprung seats (alleluia), can easily accommodate the size of the production. But the economics of Six Degrees may explain why it is not revived more often.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “In truth, the best thing about the piece is its suggestive name … it contains some zingy moments, but it’s a gimmicky and rather dated satire, packed with knowing allusions and pleased with its lightweight philosophizing … David Grindley’s production is elegant, enacted on a set by Jonathan Fensom that seems inspired by the works of Mark Rothko. The comic notes are hit with confidence, and the key performances are well-defined. Obi Abili is charming and compelling as Paul, and Lesley Manville convincing as the smart, neurotic, mutable Ouisa, whilst Anthony Head’s Flan is unsurprisingly suave. Yet pathos is lacking, and so is credibility … the children of the Kittredges and their prosperous friends are dressed in today’s fashions, and their manner suggests they’ve parachuted in from a completely different play. Guare’s device of having characters address the audience directly is grating, and we are left wishing they were less like hard-edged objects and more rounded emotionally. Grindley’s production intriguingly hints that our lives are all confidence tricks. It has pace and wit, but not in the end a great deal of substance.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “The play that John Guare based on a real-life case and staged in New York in 1990 has dated just a bit. The satire of well-heeled liberals, represented mainly by the art-dealing couple played by Anthony Head and Lesley Manville, seems over-familiar in 2010. And though their shrill, spoilt kids are funny, they’re no more than caricatures. Yet Guare’s piece still has legs, mainly because of the contradictions of the boy who calls himself Paul Poitier but never reveals his real name. Let’s concede that it’s unlikely that a gay college boy could transform a ghetto kid into a male counterpart of Eliza Dolittle … But there’s a truth behind and beyond that improbability, which is that criminals are often fantasists who get to believe and even become their own myths. For Obi Abili’s charismatic Paul, Sidney Poitier really is his father and his ploys and pretences reflect what he feels, wants, needs and almost is … is the play’s title, which suggests that there’s a six-person chain linking everyone on the planet to everyone else, a lot of nonsense? Probably. Yet there’s still something troubling and touching in Guare’s portrait of fragmentation, rootlessness and a young man’s attempt to reinvent himself through the power of his imagination. Last night I felt that Six Degrees was worth the lively, absorbing revival David Grindley has given it.”

    - Alex Mangini

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