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.