REVIEW:The Great Art War (The Court Theatre)

The battle of wits between Philip Aldridge (William Baverstock) and Robert Tripe (Alan Brassington) is electric.

Art is Life [by Sharu Delilkan]

The battle of wits between Philip Aldridge (William Baverstock) and Robert Tripe (Alan Brassington) is electric.
The battle of wits between Philip Aldridge (William Baverstock) and Robert Tripe (Alan Brassington) is electric.

As well as the content of The Great Art War, it was the location for the production that was equally alluring. I had heard about this exceptional space – The Court Theatre – conceived, constructed and opened only weeks after the quake, so I was adamant that I was going to experience it when I came to town for the Christchurch Arts Festival.

I’m happy to report that the venue is as dramatic as expected and the staging for the show was equally theatrical, which we noticed as we took our seats.

Being a bit of a philistine when it comes to musicals, I was pleasantly surprised when the show commenced. “I think it’s gonna be a good’n” I thought to myself as soon as I heard the tweeting of a Thrush, which was a great touch that opened the show.

As mentioned in the programme, The Great Art War is about the battle that ignites between art and politics, when a dedicated group of arts enthusiasts endeavour to persuade the old-fashioned “Arts Intelligentsia” to purchase the late Frances Hodgkins‘ painting The Pleasure Garden for the Christchurch Art Gallery.

I loved the clever writing of Stuart Hoar’s written word and Philip Norman’s lyrics in The Great Art War. Both the elements were equally witty and insightful, making us as audience members think about the merits of art and life in general.

Melanie Camp’s direction is suitable playful, complementing the tongue-in-cheek tone of both Hoar’s and Norman’s writing. Other elements that worked very well with the script were Julian Southgate’s set design and Joe Hayes’ lighting. The earthy tones used for the set and the textures of the steps on the raked stage worked a treat in the greater scheme of things. Southgate’s use of transparent screens as backdrops added another element, giving the set a fabulous layered effect. Pamela Jones’ and Pauline Laws costume design is excellently stylish and stylized, sometimes even cartoonish making it the perfect foil for the overall production. I particularly liked the interesting use of fabrics, design, pigment and hues of the costumes for the public and hoi polloi, which resembled the background set, allowing them to blend in unobtrusively.

On the negative side I must admit that I found the music lacking in impact, even to my untrained ear. Although very melodious and well-performed, it needed more variety in volume, pace and overall tone. Dare I say it sounded almost monochromatic due to the lack of crescendos and decrescendos. And the choruses lacked oomph, which is a shame given the quality of some of the individual performers and the amazing lyrics that accompanied the songs. And unfortunately I also felt that the choreography was a little old fashioned and some of the numbers appeared to need tightening up a bit, making it seem a little under rehearsed in parts.

Stand out songs were What We Do Not Like, Art is Our Cause and Publicity. However in the case of the song Publicity and a few other numbers, the music needed to be a bit louder to have impact, which is a pity since I adore live music on stage but at times forgot that the musicians were even there. Although the musicians’ performance was solid, the production side of things seemed lacking a little, which otherwise could have given the performers the lift they needed.

Of course I have to mention the line “critics are the bottom feeders of life and art”, which had my husband and I in stitches as we sat there with our notebooks and pens in hand. The song goes on to say “What we do know, is what we do not like!”

But like it we did, and even though our matinee crowd was a bit small, they were enthusiastic and obviously enjoyed the spectacle thoroughly, judging by the after-show buzz.

Overall the singing and acting was good. Juliet Reynolds-Midgley portrays Frances Hodgkins’ determination, complexity and dilemmas of being somewhat “progressive” and “ahead of our time” in an engaging and convincing manner. Philip Aldridge (William Baverstock) was hilariously bizarre as the critic, and as the pompous art expert was suitably and annoyingly arrogant in his view on “Modern Art”. Robert Tripe as the scheming slimy lawyer, Alan Brassington, was a stand out for me. He is brilliant not just in terms of his acting but is in perfect pitch throughout the show.

A musical is often more of a dialogue between the audience and cast than pure theatre, and seeing a matinee show with a reduced audience could conceivably reduce the impact. However The Great Art War is clever, witty, entertaining and informative about a great NZ icon and we thoroughly enjoyed it. So present yourself to Court and enlist for The Great Art War to listen, laugh and learn…

The Great Art War plays at The Court Theatre until 14 September. More information at The Court Theatre

SEE ALSO: review by Lindsay Clark

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