art-old-vic-319Rufus Sewell, Paul Ritter, Tim Key

It is more than a decade since Yasmin Reza’s Art finally closed in the West End, after an eight year run and countless cast changes. Its three-man line up was the perfect vehicle for starry combinations, from the original trio of Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott to the League of Gentlemen, before they had taken over television. Such conspicuous popular and critical successes do not come along every often, and comparisons are impossible to avoid when they are eventually revived. Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic has taken the plunge. Can his cast, not obviously chosen for their pulling power, make a 20th century play seem current and fresh? The answer is a definite yes.

Art is famed for its central plot device, a very expensive white painting bought by Serge which infuriates Marc, who believes his old friend is a either a fake or a fool. Yvan, the butt of their jokes, is caught between the two. Reza’s insights on modern art are not the play’s strong point, and the opening scene veers sets up a clumsy state of the world debate. However, Art is really about friendships and the inability of men to tell each other what they really think. The painting is a McGuffin, the lever which prises apart the relationships between the three men to revel layers of frustration and resentment.

Warchus has picked his cast perfectly. Rufus Sewell is the star name, but the play is pure team work. Sewell’s insouciance bounces off Paul Ritter’s studied superiority – his eagerly awaited verdict on the painting as “shit” is witheringly administered – while Tim Key, keen to please, delivers an exquisite, drawn out meltdown. He has the show-stopping speech, arriving flustered and late for dinner to deliver, without taking a breath, a hilariously lengthy, infuriated monologue about the sequence of arguments caused by his wedding invitations. The play is very funny, but also remarkably touching, as each characters is opened up to full emotional examination, before the importance of careful lies to maintaining friendship is confirmed. A little cheesy? Perhaps, but the appeal of Art as satisfying, intellectually coherent entertainment, remains as strong as it did last century. If you could never decide which cast to see last time around, Key, Ritter and Sewell will not disappoint.