Hogarth’s Progress (Rose Theatre, Kingston)

Posted: October 2, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Nick Dear      Director: Anthony Banks

The Art of Success

⭐️⭐️.⭐️💫

Nick Dear’s 1986 play, The Art of Success, reflecting on the early life of the 18th Century artist William Hogarth, was first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It earned an Olivier Award nomination and a transfer to New York. The play is revived here as the first half of a double bill with the World Premiere of its sequel, The Taste of the Town.

Bryan Dick’s Hogarth could just as well be a painter of the house decorating kind as an artist; he is a cheeky Cockney wide boy who is always an outsider among the smart set of London. He divides his time between his prudish wife Jane (Ruby Bentall) and the prostitute Louisa (Emma Cunniffe), the former satisfying his social climbing ambitions, the latter his carnal desires. His art reflects a society in which lust and depravity are masked by superficial propriety, the subjects of his sketches, painting and engravings often being whores and convicted murderers.

Dear gives us a ribald comedy interwoven with debates on artistic themes – beauty versus ugly reality, integrity versus commerce, freedom of expression versus censorship. Hogarth is acquainted with Sir Robert Walpole (a grotesquely seedy Mark Umbers), a corrupt Prime Minister who kisses more than hands with his Queen (Susannah Harker). Walpole’s proposed copyright legislation could help to fill the pockets of Walpole, whose work is being copied freely, but it is accompanied by the introduction of the censorship laws that were to become a blight on British theatre for more than two centuries. This brings great displeasure to another of Walpole’s acquaintances, playwright and budding revolutionary Henry Fielding (Jack Derges), who decides that it is time for him to turn to writing novels.

The play takes us through a series of scrapes that Walpole’s mingling with society’s lower ranks takes him into. Jasmine Jones is splendidly earthy as Sarah Sprackling, a condemned woman who Walpole is commissioned to sketch in Newgate Prison. The artist looks for profit from selling prints after her execution, but Sarah dislikes his work and, insisting that a truthful image should remain after her death, she seeks to destroy it.

The timing of the comedy in Anthony Banks’ lively and free-flowing production is superb. Andrew D Edwards’ ingenious set designs help the staging greatly, using images projected onto a large screen behind an open thrust stage, which has a wide ramp descending into the audience. Two upper walkways convey the feel of an over-built inner city area, populated by the rich, the poor and the destitute.

An amusing twist near the end adds a modern slant on artistic imagery that could not have been part of the play’s original 1986 production. There are some nightmarish scenes and serious undercurrents, but, mostly the jokes come thick and fast and the only times that the play stops being funny are when Dear seems to become a little self-indulgent in expounding views on the arts. Overall, this revival can be branded fairly as a success.

The Taste of the Town

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Written about 30 years after The Art of Success, and picking up on the life of the artist William Hogarth about 30 years after the first play left off, the World Premiere of this sequel forms the second part of a double bill, alongside a revival of its predecessor, all the actors from the first play taking on new roles.

Andrew D Edwards’ set for the opening scene is filled with greenery and dominated by a large Georgian-style house. The Taste of the Town takes us far away from the grimy inner city that we had seen before. “Miles and miles” away from town complains Hogarth’s snooty mother-in-law, as indeed Chiswick may have seemed before the opening of the District line. Squalor and ribaldry are replaced by more genteel comedy, tarts are forsaken in favour of teacakes.

Hogarth is now Sergeant Painter to King George III, able to enjoy the fruits of his artistic endeavours, but instead, he mourns the death of his beloved dog named Trump (pause for laughter) and rues the fact that he is still not held in the same esteem as the European masters or as…well “don’t mention Reynolds”. Apart from a rather touching epilogue, the play covers a single day in which Jane Hogarth (Susannah Harker) and her mother Lady Thornhill (Sylvestra Le Touzel seeming as is if she is auditioning to play Lady Bracknell) go shopping in Piccadilly while Hogarth himself walks upstream along the Thames to Strawberry Hill and back downstream.

The style is more Wildean than Hogarthian, with clever witticisms slipped into the dialogue at regular intervals. Hogarth is accompanied on part of his walk by his friend, the actor David Garrick (Mark Umbers), who is made to to seem overly vain in one of several jokes in the play that are a little too obvious. This plot is all very slight and as meandering as the river along which the artist is walking, but Keith Allen is in magnificent form playing Walpole as gruff, cantankerous and heavy drinking. When the play gets bogged down, Allen dredges it up.

Along the walk, Zachariah Blunt (Ben Deery), a disgruntled one-legged ex-soldier appears and Garrick has to perform, not too reluctantly, a scene from the Scottish Play to prove his identity in one of the play’s excellent comedy set pieces. In another, Walpole calls in at the palatial Strawberry Hill home of Robert Walpole’s son Horace, an acid-tongued art collector and critic. Is it possible that Ian Hallard’s portrayal of Horace is making references to a prominent modern-day right-wing politician?

There is little that is disagreeable about any of this, but director Anthony Banks’ production often feels lacklustre and there is disappointment that Dear picks up on the intriguing debates of his earlier work only fleetingly. The Taste of the Town seems unlikely to become the toast of the town, but Allen’s performance could well do so.

Performance date: 29 September 2018

These reviews were originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

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