The Art of Success

So it’s the last performance of 2015/16 from MMU’s Manchester School of Theatre, and it’s in HOME’s main theatre space.

Nick Dear’s The Art of Success is a tricky play.  At times simply bawdy, at other times pronouncing on the uneasy relationship between art, money and censorship, and covering themes of feminism and desire, this text knows what it wants to say, but doesn’t always know how to do it.  Many of the events are historically accurate, but the characters are loose.  All too often the play is a vehicle to ask the questions, and the cast have to fight to create believable characters.

But the director and cast make a great job of a flawed script.  Opening with the four members of the Beefsteak Club sprawled around a dining table, backed by massive picture frames, staging is impressive and movement within and between scenes works well.  It’s beautifully lit, and each scene is created with striking attention to detail.  William Hogarth (Johnny Byrom) struggles to balance his art, his need for money (whether to fund his whoring or to pay for his newly married lifestyle) and his attitudes towards women.  At the same time playwright ‘Harry’ Fielding (Jerome Dowling) takes an idealistic stance, believing both in true love, and that the only way to challenge the establishment is to attack them head on in the theatre.

There are some gems in this play.  Hogarth draws murderer Sarah Sprackling (Laura Ferries) in prison, a scene that brims with tension and exchanges in the balance of power.  Who owns the image that he has created, the artist or the subject?  What are his obligations to be accurate in his depiction of the murderer?  Queen Caroline (Bryony Miller) orders the otherwise supremely arrogant Robert Walpole (James Eken) to strip, humiliating a man that in other situations is all too ready to exercise his political weight.  Jane Hogarth (Harriet Poole) convincingly moves between the prim wife and the sexually confident woman of Hogarth’s dreams and nightmares.  There is great chemistry between Hogarth and favourite prostitute Louisa (Comfort Fabian).  It’s hard to fault any of the performances.

Much to recommend this play, but it is the performances and staging that stand out rather than the script.

The Art of Success runs from 3 to 5 June 2016.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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