Rose Theatre, Kingston – until 21 October 2018
The contrast in styles between Nick Dear’s The Art of Success and The Taste of the Town is striking but both make for compelling viewing in Anthony Banks’ production.
Bold, brash and bawdy is the way you could describe Nick Dear’s The Art of Success, while The Taste of the Town is more refined and sophisticated in contrast (but with still a strong hint of bawdiness) – but both plays offer a strong portrait of William Hogarth’s life and mixed fortunes in his career.
This double bill of plays concentrates on two very different periods in Hogarth’s life, with The Art of Success concentrating on his early career as an artist and newlywed, while The Taste of the Town focuses on the artist towards the end of his career. Sharply written, both plays complement each other well to offer a portrait of a man who rarely seemed comfortable with his skills as an artist – always on the defensive about his work and always questioning about what art actually is.
With The Art of Success, director Anthony Banks clearly delights in the raucousness of the play and the vividness of Hogarth’s horrific dreams, offering audiences an interesting insight into the artist as well as the grimness of 18th century London. But at times the scale of the production, though impressive to look at thanks to Andrew D Edward’s set design and Douglas O’Connell’s video and projection design, seems slightly overly ambitious, leaving too much space on stage that doesn’t draw the audience in as it perhaps could.
But what The Art of Success does particularly well is the way in which although the play is set in a world very much dominated by men, it is, in fact, women that take centre stage in the play and this production – highlighted by the strong and charismatic performances from the female cast.
In particular, Jasmine Jones offers a chilling and powerful performance as Sarah Sprackling a murderess whose portrait Hogarth hopes to capture before she is executed. Jones is quietly sinister, underlying the character’s viciousness with subtle threats that works beautifully to build up the tension particularly when a situation is threatening to boil over. Emma Cunniffe as Louisa is another strong personality, her character is practical, hiding her sentimentality underneath her profession, while Ruby Bentall as Jane Hogarth is is delightfully charming and naive. The way in which all three of these characters confront Hogarth at his studio is a real highlight and amusing sequence in the play.
Bryan Dick as William Hogarth portrays the artist as a lost and uncertain individual frustrated with his efforts to become successful but with plenty of passion in order to do so. It is a performance that is successfully multi-layered that works to best effect when he has to deal with the different women in his life and engaging to watch.
Working in stark contrast to this, The Taste of the Town is certainly very different with a more refined and sophisticated in terms of its humour with only the occasional moment of bawdiness. Being set thirty years after the The Art of Success, means that it is a very different William Hogarth that emerges, brilliantly played by Keith Allen. The Hogarth here is bitter and resentful at the world and the way in which it views his art, leading him to confront Horace Walpole (flamboyantly portrayed by Ian Hallard) in a way that offers gentle amusement to the audience.
Keith Allen’s portrayal of Hogarth is filled with swagger and brashness that is mesmerising and hilarious to watch but also tinged with poignancy particularly towards the end that offers a deeper understanding of why he is the way he is. Allen is well matched by Sylvestra Le Touzel as Lady Thornhill – their sparring and different attitudes towards numerous issues a real highlight.
Out of the two plays, The Taste of the Town is perhaps clearer and easier to understand in its intention – the way in which it has been constructed makes it more enjoyable to watch, feeling more graceful with the central characters given more of an opportunity to shine.
Both plays can be enjoyed separately, but it is worth seeing both if you can as together they offer a vivid insight into the world of William Hogarth to great effect, thanks to Nick Dear’s sharp writing and well formed characters.
By Emma Clarendon
Hogarth’s Progress will continue to play at the Rose Theatre in Kingston until the 21st October. For more information visit: https://www.rosetheatrekingston.org/whats-on/hogarths-progress.