Review: Artist Descending A Staircase, Criterion Theatre

“Imagination without skill gives us modern art”

Home to the long-running The 39 Steps (which I still haven’t quite gotten round to seeing yet), the Criterion Theatre has been expanding its programming both with late-evening and afternoon events. This Tuesday afternoon saw a performance of Tom Stoppard’s radio play Artist Descending A Staircase by such an attractive cast that it was impossible to resist. The play was performed in front of us to a microphone, although I couldn’t quite figure out whether this was being recorded for real or not, and sound effects created onstage so it was just like watching a radio play being recorded rather than something being acted out and was most amusing with it – not least because we got to see the actors in their civvies and see what their fashion sense is like!

But to the play itself: we open with a scratchy recording of undetermined sounds and soon find ourselves in an attic studio shared by three elderly avant-garde artists with two of them standing over the body of the third at the bottom of the staircase. Beauchamp is the one who made the recording as his art centres on the sounds of everyday life and as he and his colleague Martello hear their dead friend Donner acknowledge the presence of something just before his fall, they each point the finger of suspicion at the other.

In a series of flashbacks both to the recent cantankerous past and way back in their history to the birth of their shared artistic ideal, we see how their relationship has progressed and developed, especially with the arrival of Sophie, a blind woman who caught the affections of all three of them in different ways. Stoppard looks at how our own senses can work against us as well as the fallibility of our own memories which can have huge repercussions for both love and life.

As the older trio, Oliver Cotton, James Fleet and Tim McInnerny had most of the best lines and had great fun with them too as they bitched about the bad habits of the others, groused about their artistic choices and generally grumbled their way through life. Their younger counterparts Henry Lloyd Hughes, James Northcote and Ed Bennett respectively had a slightly more difficult task in convincing us of their earnestness but all did well and were significantly helped in the most unlikely of ways, by Stoppard actually writing with genuine heartfelt emotion for his characters for once and Northcote in particular seizes on this to create a most moving portrayal.

As the sole woman, the ever-marvellous Katherine Parkinson was excellent as Sophie, the recently blind woman whose journey in the play is marked by its own tragedy, and her voice is so expressive and melodious that it is ideally suited to just listen to. Most of the actors helped out with the creation of sound effects for all manner of things and in all manner of ways, but special mention has to go to Spot Stage Manager Alison Mckenzie who did much of the work and Sam Hodges’ direction marshalled all the elements together perfectly. I believe other events are planned for this lunchtime slot so keep your eye out for the future as this was a highly enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes or so.

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