The Hope Theatre, London – until 4 June 2022
What do you do when you’re striving to be an artist but inspiration is in short supply, the world is crumbling to bits around you, depression is ready to come calling and a procession of other people keep invading your space and interrupting your flow? This is the situation faced by the central character in 100 Paintings a play by Jack Stacey currently in production at the Hope Theatre in Islington. It’s actually the piece’s second outing having played at The Bread And Roses last year; it has since gained more relevance with its main setting being a city under siege.
This is not Kiev however, but London in some sort of dystopian near future where the sounds of heavy shelling are never far away, and the air has become so toxic that out in the street everyone has to wear a “breather” in order to survive. Most of central London has been destroyed but The Artist (never named) is holed up in a room in The Savoy where he is frantically trying to meet the terms of a commission from the hotel manager to produce a set of paintings to adorn the hotel walls in lieu of payment for his ever growing accommodation bill.
He has three days to comply and when we first encounter him he has only managed a mere handful. His cause isn’t helped by the constant interruptions of his mother bearing camomile tea, a deliberately embarrassing running commentary on his non-existent sex life and a dismissive attitude to the works he tentatively reveals. Further interruptions follow in the form of Beatriz, a bookish librarian searching for the truth about her father and Eva who although she seems the least likely to provide any inspiration, unwittingly succeeds in doing so.
It’s an engaging premise and there are some interesting points made about how we see the world and the labels we adopt – is the central figure a painter or an artist; is Eva a prostitute or a sex worker; is Beatriz a librarian or a bibliognost; are they tits or breasts? And does any of this matter?
However, I found the tone uneven as the piece veered from near farce to existential meditation, taking in character comedy, sci-fi commentary and contemplative monologues along the way. The sub-plot about Beatriz’s search for her dad seems unnecessary though it does counterpoint the son/mother theme from the main narrative.
This is explored fully in the first 20 minutes of so as, going for broad comedy, Denise Stephenson’s Mother alternately cossets and berates The Artist of Conrad Williamson – 25 but going on 15 with his petulant outbursts and his bottom lip sticking out in an “it’s not fair” attitude. There’s an air of Harry Enfield’s teenager Kevin meeting Jennifer Saunders’s Ab Fab Edina about the whole sequence but the point could have been made rather more swiftly and economically.
Things take a more serious turn when woman on a mission Beatriz (Jane Christie) arrives and helps the artist to question his credentials. She is succeeded by the largely at first silent but imposing figure of Eva (Juliet Garricks) who quickly becomes The Artist’s muse as he starts to churn out a production line of images which just might get him near his target. There’s also one bona fide piece he creates but fate has other plans for it. This denouement failed to work for me on a production level although it’s difficult to see how it might have been staged better in such a limited space.
Artfully and immersively designed by Zsofia Sarosi, director Zachary Hart makes generally good use of the pocket sized dimensions of the venue but there were times when I had no clear view of what was happening; I spent far too much time staring into the bulky rucksack on Beatriz’s back for instance. And there were interesting effects created by sound and lighting designers Jack Whitney and Jasmine Williams. On a picky technical point, I wasn’t convinced that if all the Savoy’s lighting wasn’t working that there would still be boiling hot tap water and a sprinkler system that continued to operate. Perhaps, unlike the rest of us, the Savoy in the future will still be able to afford their energy bills.