Studies for a Portrait @ King’s Head Theatre, London

cast list
Travis Oliver, John Atterbury, Tristam Summers, Simon Wright

directed by
Adam Spreadbury-Maher
Adam Spreadbury-Maher, newly-appointed Artistic Director of the King’s Head, clearly has a thing about Daniel Reitz’ Studies for a Portrait.

He directed it at The White Bear early in 2009, took it into the Oval House last Summer and now chooses it as his inaugural production at the Islington venue.

It’s easy to see why. This is bravura writing: fluid, acerbic and incisive. It’s exhilarating and stimulating. A West End venue surely beckons.
Art is Reitz’ subject, or at least his background. What the play’s actually about is the flowing relationships amongst a cascade of male lovers: Julian Barker, a famous artist now in his late 70s; his ex-boyfriend Marcus, another painter, in his 50s; the current incumbent of five years, 30-something Chad; and Justin, a 23 year old underwear model. By the end an even younger man is joining the chain.

Stricken with cancer, Barker (John Atterbury) has come to his East Hampton beach house to die. We’re told that he’s one of the greats; up there with Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns (the three Js), friend of Lichtenstein and Warhol. Irascible and mercurial, he’s swallowed up every style of modern art since the Sixties and has now amassed millions.

There’s great ambiguity in the characterisations. Starting out jerking off for internet porn sites, Chad (a chiselled Travis Oliver) is a chancer who picked up Barker on a beach while cruising for rich dick. He now controls the fortune but, despite his opportunism, shows a real care for the dying older man, generosity emerging in unexpected places.

The Adonis, Justin (Tristam Summers), appears all sweet innocence but reveals an unpleasant streak of self-interest, while Simon Wright’s seedy Marcus fights through his wallowing self-pity to find hope when treated fairly.

It’s all very nicely played in Spreadbury-Maher’s evenly-paced production. The virtuosic writing, laced with humour while not avoiding the messiness of human (and gay) relations, sits comfortably in the hands of this cast and director.

Kate Guinness’ set is a work of art in itself, a daub of blue smeared across white walls and blank canvases waiting for us to fill in the details ourselves.

If this is an indication of Spreadbury-Maher’s nose for writing, his reign as Dan Crawford’s successor means exciting times ahead. This is fringe theatre at something near its best.

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