Review: Picasso At the Lapin

Picasso at the lapin Review 21st November 2022

Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a funny, interesting and intriguing play, written by the American actor, comedian and writer Steve Martin.  I overheard one of the directors say that it is seldom performed over here, but quite frequently in the USA. Another intriguing thing! It certainly is a fast-moving and thought-provoking romp through an evening at this Montmartre bar popular with artists, poets and intellectuals, including Picasso and Einstein.

The play is set in 1904, just before Einstein published his Theory of Relativity and Picasso relinquished his blue period and set off on his journey into cubism. The two spend the evening engaging in a passionate discussion of the magnificence of culture versus science, indulging in clever wordplay, and looking forward into the dawning of the promising 20th century.

The Keep is a popular, tiny pub opposite Guildford Castle, and provides a very intimate venue for some Pranksters’ productions. It was ideally suited to this one.

The programme cover was wonderfully colourful, and contained a useful note on the play, details of forthcoming productions, and photos of Picasso and Einstein as the young men they were in 1904 with photos of the actors playing them, which showed the uncanny likeness of the actors to the two iconic figures.

The bar provided the ideal set, of course, and a picture of sheep in the fog provided some key moments.

The scene was set long before curtain up with the playing of the wonderful French chansons we all used to know and love so well. More were heard during the production. Lighting was effective throughout.

The two ladies, Germaine behind the bar, and Suzanne, a ‘follower’ of Picasso, looked charming in their red and black outfits, Germaine with her hair nicely done up in an appropriate style, and Suzanne sporting a marvellous hat. Much tweed and checked shirts were in evidence. Gaston looked splendid in wine-red waistcoat and trousers, with matching beret. Schmendiman, a would-be scientist, looked out of this world in bowler hat with 3 huge green feathers, loud checked trousers, green waistcoat and cravat, and black fur coat. He made a statement with his outfit more than with his ideas! The messenger from the mid-20th century wore blue suede shoes, tight trousers and black leather jacket, with 1950s hair. Great care had been taken with characters’ appearance, and this greatly enhanced enjoyment of the play.

What shone through this production for me was the excellent casting, not just of the two main protagonists, but of the rest of the players. The over-confident, cocky Picasso versus the quieter, more thoughtful Einstein were portrayed with finesse by Joe Hall and Sam Gould respectively, and they sparred together like young enthusiastic boxers – the enthusiasm and optimism of youth.

This contrasted nicely, of course, with the older regular ‘barfly’ Gaston, jaded, faded, weak-bladdered, and yet defiantly carrying on, and joining in all the discussions and action with great gusto. Phil Snell, as ever, played his character marvellously.

Mark Lockhart gave a great performance as Freddy, the bar owner, master of all he surveyed, very happy with his lot, a rounded, contented character.

Suzanne, one of Picasso’s many conquests, looked gorgeous, but was quite unsure of herself and of the man she was well aware she hadn’t conquered. As well she might be, when he said: ‘I meant everything I said that night, I just forgot who I said it to.’ Perplexed, puzzled, a gentle soul, she was well played by Alex Gold.

Slightly older and more worldly wise, observing Suzanne with a knowing yet sympathetic smile, was Germaine, Freddy’s mistress, and a former lover of Picasso. She knew what she wanted from life, and it wasn’t the wildness of the artist, but rather a comfortable life with a good reliable man. Once again, a super portrayal by Amy Scott, who made Germaine an intriguing character of depth.

This was the great thing about this production – all the characters, no matter how short or long their appearance on the stage, were rounded, whole people. This speaks for the directors as well as the cast, of course.

Picasso’s agent Sagot (Rick Buckman-Drage) appeared, making it clear how successful Picasso already was, and illustrating how exciting was the art world at the time, with a certain rivalry between, for example, Picasso and Matisse.

Then another would-be scientist, over-confident, over-flamboyant, Schmendiman (an amusing performance by David Clegg) turned up, whizzed in, propounded his crazy ideas, and whizzed out again. Such a contrast to the thoughtful, careful young Einstein, who at the time was still working at the Patent Office.

Einstein’s attractive ladyfriend, the Countess (Caroline James) made an appearance, as did a manic fan of Picasso (Ms James again). There was indeed never a dull moment!

But for me one of the best moments was the startling arrival of a time-travelling messenger from the mid-20th century, from Memphis of course, who showed how the adoration of celebrity flourished to an ever greater extent over those years. Tony Carpenter gave a spell-binding Elvis impression, absolutely first class.

So this was a fast-moving, clever, amusing and thought-provoking play, really well directed and presented by the Pranksters’ team, a memorable evening’s theatre, as one has come to expect from this society.

Author: Pauline Surrey