John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation receives its first revival in 18 years with this David Grindley directed production at the Old Vic. Based on a true story of a conman finagling his way into the lives of wealthy Manhattan socialites by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier, we see the lives of two New York art dealers, Ouisa and Fran Kittredge turned upside down after they take an injured Paul into their home and he wreaks havoc on their lives and those of them around them as he challenges their comfortable existences. It is kept in its original 1980s setting, presumably as the issues around financial greed are as pertinent today, even if those around race and homosexuality are less so.
Onstage narration seems to be the flavour of the month and it is a tricky thing to get right: Innocence fails, Midsummer gets it right, here is somewhere in the middle. There’s a mixture of Ouisa and Fran, and indeed other characters, narrating the events and the action being played out, and I’m not sure the balance is wholly there: it is just so much more entertaining when the actors are engaging with each other and I was frequently left wanting to see more of that.
Anthony Head suffered the most from this structure, his rather one-note performance doesn’t really have anywhere to go, and his only character progression is to rediscover a love for art, but due to him spending a fair amount of time narrating, his initial disaffection just isn’t shown sufficiently. Obi Abili as the duplicitous, seductive cuckoo in the nest Paul is better though not as convincing as he should be in the one scene as his ‘true’ self and there’s some good comedic work from the actors playing the spoiled children with their laconic sense of entitlement and ennui.
As the central Ouisa, Lesley Manville is very good, artfully playing the awakening from her complacency and the growth of the character. But, and I hate people who do this yet here I am, I couldn’t escape the lingering feeling that it owed too much to Stockard Channing’s original performance or perhaps that it wasn’t distinct enough. Manville is far from bad, I was just hoping for more from an actress whom I love.
In the end, I left feeling disappointed. There’s something that doesn’t quite hang together here for me, tonally the comedy is too high in the mix to allow the darker later scenes around the suicide the necessary depth and pathos and whilst the simple staging allows for a range of locations to be suggested, I didn’t like the floating blocks. Perhaps some of these things will be ironed out before opening night, but I rather suspect this just wasn’t the play for me.