Review: Studies for a Portrait, King’s Head Theatre

“The situation I find myself in will be endured to a point, and no further”

After a run at the White Bear Theatre and another at the Oval House Theatre both last year, Studies for a Portrait takes up residence at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre for an 8-week run. Interestingly, its director, Adam Spreadbury-Maher will soon take up the role of Artistic Director at the King’s Head so this could be seen as a taster of things to come on Upper Street.

Julian Barker is one of the greatest modern American painters, on a par with Warhol and Bacon, but when he is diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, he retreats to his summerhouse in the Hamptons to make preparations for his death, but also with the help of his much younger boyfriend Chad in creating a foundation, for his enduring legacy. There are not the only ones though, as an ex-boyfriend of Julian is hungry for both artistic and financial recompense and things are further complicated by Chad’s other boyfriend Justin, an even younger underwear model, is also staying with them.

What follows is a strange mixture of a discussion about to whom the legacy of a major artist belongs and a peek at the über-rich gay lifestyle of the Hamptons, and they don’t always make easy bedfellows. The battle over Julian’s legacy is by far the most interesting part of this play, these men who have influenced his life in different ways all lay claim in some way and desire some reward, just how altruistically any of them are minded is very much up for debate. On the other hand is this odd love-triangle of conflicting loyalties as Chad is pulled between his two lovers, but quite what the younger Justin was expecting when he moved in I do not know, his petulance at being ignored, whilst amusing is misplaced, especially given his alleged deep intelligence.

Travis Oliver does well as Chad, whose motivations do ultimately seem genuine towards a lover he’s not ready to let go of and whose legacy he really does want to preserve. His interactions with Simon Wright’s Marcus are also well-judged, wittily played and revelatory of a deeper connection between the two than Chad would ever acknowledge.

Reitz clearly has a great line in writing sharp snappy repartee, and it is excellently delivered, especially by John Atterbury’s barbed tongue as Julian, but there’s just too much of it. The banter is relentless and gives little room for pathos to develop, so that when the façade drops unexpectedly as Julian finally confronts his mortality or Marcus holds up a bag of his ashes, we’re still laughing and expecting a joke when it should be genuine emotion being felt. I’m not sure if this was the fault of the writing, the acting, the direction or even us the audience, but the tone of the whole play fell far too heavily on the comic side of tragicomic.

Matters are not helped by the amount of flesh on show here. With the house being by the sea, I forgave the early scene with a speedo-wearing Chad but making Justin an underwear model just seemed like a gratuitous way to have a fit young man wandering around in his pants and when it got to the point where they were both spending most of the first half in their designer boxers, it really began to cheapen the drama. One was glad for them emerging fully-clothed after the interval. And the less said about the full-frontal nudity scene the better, completely unnecessary.

Ultimately I was left unmoved by Studies for a Portrait. Despite much going for it: incidental music and sons from Boy George, good acting and an interesting set-up about defending artistic legacies written by someone who clearly has a passion for art, the play degenerates into ‘just another gay play’ with little new to say.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2
Note: full frontal male nudity

4 thoughts on “Review: Studies for a Portrait, King’s Head Theatre

  1. Well if you will continue to go and see the gay plays in fringe theatres….glutton for punishment. Too many plays with full-frontal nudity, men in their pants strutting around and little else to say. It's often nice to see a well-rounded gay character with a central role in a good play….now I never thought I would find myself saying this, but can we please have some well-rounded straight characters in central roles at the Kings Head? Equal opportunities and all that.

  2. Hehe, though I do think it seems that the King's Heads programming has gone hell for leather in pursuing the pink pound and I just hope they haven't lost the rest of their audience along the way. I don't remember it being so homosexually inclined in past years.

  3. About the review, I'm not so sure I agree. I found it interesting as it portrays the life of a rich, famous artist. I would imagine that a lot of people would try to somehow attach themselves, there is fame and fortune for the taking.
    After seeing the play, I did think about it, and found out that Bruce Weber and Karl Lagerfield have kept muses and nudity is normal in both their art. Bruce Weber's muse is still looked after very well by Mr. Weber!

    So is there a need to hide that fact? I mean I'm young, and if I were in that position and chasing fame, I couldn't say I wouldn't resort to the same thing tbh. Hell at the end, there's a beautiful painting of me, capturing my youth! Which is why I didn't think it was gratuitous. But I admit I am new to theatre, so am I missing something?

  4. Thanks for your comments, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Part of my attitude is governed by the general programming at the King's Head, it seems every other play at the moment is a gay one with cute guys in their pants and I rarely find that it is necessary, the fact that this particular nude scene was only played as the (metaphorical) curtain came down on Act 1 indicates clearly to me that it was not an integral part of the storytelling.
    Still I take your point about muses, so I don't think you're missing anything at all, I just find that so much shirtlessness etc tends to be a distracting device and I do think there was a good play in there somewhere.

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