Prism, Hampstead Theatre

5/10

Prism is one of those stories that leaves the audience member baffled as to why anyone thought it needed to be told. Its premise is an imagining of the late life of cinematographer Jack Cardiff – famous for, among other things, his work on The African Queen – in particular his years with dementia.

Plays that depict dementia’s slippage between present reality and memory can be moving, interesting and great art – Florian Zeller’s The Father being one example. where Prism suffers is in choosing as its subject someone renowned, but not sufficiently present in the public consciousness. Why Jack Cardiff, the audience is left wondering. Were we meant to know that he had Alzheimer’s? Why is his decline so particularly interesting? The choice of subject detracts from the play and makes it – despite its all-star cast – seem somewhat small and parochial.

Robert Lindsay is on fine form as an irascible man in occasional possession of his marbles, and his manner and energy carry the play. Claire Skinner excels both as the younger wife Cardiff no longer recognises and his remembered vision of Katharine Hepburn, whom she captures perfectly. Ultimately, however, the production falls flat. The characters are insufficiently fictional – but also not real enough – leaving a sense if dissatisfaction. I left feeling that I had watched someone’s pet vanity project, and I wasn’t sure why.

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Le Grand Mort, Trafalgar Studios

6.5/10

Le Grand Mort has the distinction of being one of the most unusual plays I’ve ever seen. At the outset, the audience is introduced to Michael, carefully preparing pasta puttanesca live on stage for his dinner guest Tim. The audience is drawn into Michael’s confidence and his psyche through a combination of anecdotes, bons mots and poetic passages about love, intimacy and death.

By the end of this scene, I was convinced I was watching a death pact comedy-drama and in that assumption lies all the tension of the play.  Is Michael a murderer? Is Tim a victim, or an adversary come to beat him at his game? Or is something else at play here? The  fragment of plot revolves around this, the events surrounding their meeting, and the lies and stories they tell about themselves.

Le Grand Mort is a play that plays tricks on you. In fact, the play is about the fear and dread of intimacy, the idea that giving yourself up to someone, letting them in, removing the masks you wear when facing the rest of the world, is as terrifying as death itself. Intimacy, the title suggests, is where we risk the most.

Playing with words, is, as the title suggests, at the heart of the play and its words are its strongest point, both characters and what little there is of plot lying obscured behind them. he star of this scene is not Clary himself, but the language.

Le Grand Mort is clever, funny, well-written, tense and even sweet in places. The performances are good, but the language is overly clever at times and as the characters debate intimacy it is ironically difficult for the audience to get close to them. Nonetheless, Julian Clary sparkles as the erudite and enigmatic Michael and James Nelson-Joyce is a tantalising Tim and the resolution they find together – although perhaps slightly incongruous with the overall tone of the play – is heartwarming in a pleasant way.