BWW Review: ART HEIST, New Diorama Theatre

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BWW Review: ART HEIST, New Diorama TheatreBWW Review: ART HEIST, New Diorama TheatreHow would one go about stealing a work of art from a gallery? Written and directed by Jack Bradfield, the Poltergeist Theatre's new play Art Heist - now in London after a sold-out run at Edinburgh Fringe - begins by contemplating this very question. And the answers seem obvious and ready to hand, at least for an unnamed authorial figure (played by Alice Boyd) intent on controlling the narratives of three art thieves who break into the same gallery at the same time.

Boyd's character takes it upon herself to be both the author and the stage manager of these three heists, which unfold (and eventually spin out of control) behind a large white frame designed by Shankho Chaudhuri. Boyd is seated outside of this space, running ambient sound cues at her laptop and communicating with her three thieves through a microphone. With soft-spoken amiability, she pulls their strings, gently guiding their actions with her leading questions.

Serena Yagoub, Rosa Garland and Will Spence are the sprightly performers behind these unwittingly manipulated characters. Each brings a distinctly comic flavour to their part: Yagoub's is a professional, self-consciously dramatic thief who behaves as though she were in an action film; Garland plays a sensitive chef who finds herself compelled to steal a painting just because she "loves" it; and Spence's character is motivated by his dreams of worldwide infamy, should his heist go as planned.

And sure it doesn't. Soon enough, these puppet-like figures become aware of their own agency and start challenging the authority of Boyd's character, who also inserts herself into the action as the gallery's security guard. As they compete with each other for the ultimate possession of the valuable painting, our three characters stumble upon questions of artistic value, authenticity, and autonomy. Whereas the art they see all around shows them a world of enclosed, frozen stories, they come to wonder if they could step out of, or even remake, the frame that stands in front of them.

Yet for a play whose shifting layers are surprisingly easy to follow, Art Heist rarely deploys its stylistic playfulness to engage deeply with its thematic concerns. In fact, there persists a slightly awkward incongruence between form and content: while the audience is primed to expect a clear link between the play's metatheatrical aspects and its mild meditation on aesthetics, a connection of this sort never quite establishes itself. What is it about an art heist that makes interrogations of creative autonomy particularly relevant? Surely there is an answer to this question somewhere, but not in this play.

For the most part, Bradfield's direction has a fine sense of engaging stage movement, with his actors jumping up and down, running and crawling around in evocative ways. Lucy Adams's lighting design, too, keeps the mood sufficiently vibrant, making use of bright primary colours to denote the distinct phases of the play. With the exception of some unnecessary projections of live recordings, Art Heist has a pleasantly frenetic quality that goes well with its interest in criminal misadventures.

It is fitting that a show purporting to deconstruct itself should end with The Smiths' "Panic" drowning the actors' voices. ("Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ," go the lyrics.) Though Art Heist doesn't really let us in on why exactly it hangs its own DJ, one can still find some food for thought in this entertainingly chaotic caper.

Art Heist at the New Diorama Theatre until 26 October

Photo credit: The Other Richard

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From This Author Mert Dilek