Review: He(art) at Theatre N16

Andrew Maddock has already established himself as a writer to watch with his previous work, including In/Out (A Feeling) and more recently, The We Plays. In particular, he really knows how to create characters that we care about, so that when the story suddenly takes a darker turn, we’re caught totally off guard. He(art), Maddock’s latest play, follows a similar trajectory, setting up two separate but equally compelling stories before smashing them together in an explosive final scene.

Alice is looking for a painting to buy with her boyfriend Rhys. But he’s reluctant to commit – to a piece of art or anything else, including seeing a doctor about his congenital heart condition. Meanwhile Kev’s just got out of prison and is hatching a plan with his sister Sam to get the money they need for their dying Mum’s medical treatment – by stealing the very painting Alice and Rhys have their eye on…

Photo credit: Jesse Night
Photo credit: Jesse Night

At first glance, there’s a lot in this story that doesn’t quite make sense. How did posh gallery curator Alice get together with “Wembley Warrior” window cleaner Rhys? Why do Kev and Sam have to steal that particular painting (and why any painting, come to that)? What happened to their dad? And what does die Maus Head Man have to do with anything?

We don’t get all the answers, but that’s sort of the whole point – Maddock gives us a sketchy snapshot of events, and how we fill in the blanks is up to us. If a few of those events are slightly random, well it just makes the overall impression more interesting – like a mouse head that triples a painting’s value. The opening scene, in which Alice tries unsuccessfully to teach Rhys about art, is actually as much for the audience as it is for him, letting us know that just because we don’t have all the info it doesn’t mean we can’t flesh out the story in our own way. The stage in director Niall Phillips’ production is a roped-off gallery space; the props are exhibits hanging from the ceiling, as is the painting at the heart of it all. This play is a piece of art in itself, to be examined, discussed and interpreted, not simply accepted at face value.

But as the title suggests, there’s more than just art here – there’s also a huge amount of heart. This manifests itself in small ways, like Rhys’ pride in the fact his are the only streak-free windows on the high street, or in Sam’s eclectic music collection and the affection for Johnny Cash that she shares with her brother. But it’s also built into the relationships of the characters; this is a story that’s absolutely driven by the heart instead of the head. On paper, Rhys and Alice’s relationship should never work. Sam and Kev’s planned heist is doomed to failure. And yet we find ourselves willing both to succeed, because both are motivated by that most fundamental of human emotions: love.

Photo credit: Jesse Night
Photo credit: Jesse Night

This love comes through powerfully in the four actors’ performances. Jack Gogarty and Alex Reynolds are very natural together as Rhys and Alice, revelling in their light-hearted banter about the value (or not) of Banksy and a recent scandal in the porn industry. But their relationship is just as convincing in its more intense moments; her anxiety about his health and his longing for a normal life both feel entirely genuine. Similarly, the close sibling relationship between Kev and Sam, played beautifully by Shane Noone and Flora Dawson, feels completely authentic, precisely because it isn’t picture perfect – his concern for her welfare is frequently tinged with impatience and even violence, while her childlike emotional vulnerability and desperate desire to please him put everything at risk more than once.

In He(art), Andrew Maddock has another hit on his hands; it’s a poignant and at times very funny story of two halves – and if this time the twist in the tale isn’t entirely unexpected, that doesn’t make it any less compelling to watch. (One of the great things about theatre in the round is you can see how other audience members are reacting, and it’s safe to say I wasn’t the only one on the edge of my seat there at the end.) Most importantly, it reminds us that whether we’re talking about painting, music or even window cleaning, there’s no such thing as “just art”.

He(art) is at Theatre N16 until 28th January.

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