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Review: ART, Old Vic

Opening the Old Vic's 2016-17 season, and following on from the Glenda Jackson-led King Lear, is Yasmina Reza's Art, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It's a comedy of friendship that brings Rufus Sewell, Tim Key and Paul Ritter back to the London stage, and reunites the original London production's creative team.

Serge has bought a painting; it's white, with white lines. He shows it separately to friends Marc and Yvan, provoking very different reactions - Marc denounces it (and, in turn, Serge's taste), whereas Yvan is more receptive to the idea. Everything comes to a head when the three agree to meet up one evening - Yvan's terrible lateness is the unwitting catalyst for an extreme three-way argument that has clearly been brewing for years, perhaps even their entire friendship. Is there a way back for them from there?

Mark Thompson's design, in keeping with the painting, is minimalist - the set acts as each of the three friends' homes, designated by a specific painting (or lack of one) on the back wall. Hugh Vanstone's lighting design comes into its own, particularly during moments where the characters have little asides, where they are held in a spotlight and everything else cast into darkness. The final moment, with each friend highlighted as a different primary colour, is a great visual feat that brings it all back to the question of the 'white' painting.

All three roles have been cast superbly, with infinite comic potential. So much so that a mere exchange of glances, or the nibbling on some olives, seems effortlessly hilarious. Paul Ritter is ideal as Marc, with sardonic laugh and dismissive air at the ready. As the slightly more debonair Serge, Rufus Sewell exudes charm and manages to make his character a relatable figure by keeping the pretentiousness to an absolute minimum. Ritter and Sewell's verbal jousting is an engaging example of comedic acting at its best.

But it is Tim Key who stands out with his portrayal of Yvan. Much of the time he attempts to act as peacekeeper, despite being constantly exasperated with the state of his life and only just holding things together himself. His extended rant, by way of an apology for his lateness, is achieved almost without taking a breath and earns him roars of laughter alongside a well-deserved round of applause. This is, without doubt, a breakthrough theatrical performance from Key.

It is interesting to see an all-male group of friends used to investigate the notion of friendship and its foundations. Would things play out in the same way for any other combination of three? As well as asking some important questions, the play goes big on humour and is an exceedingly entertaining 90 minutes of theatre. Art is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Art is at the Old Vic until 18 February, 2017

Picture credit: Manuel Harlan

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