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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Old Vic


  Anthony Head, Ian Redford and Lesley Manville/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

In many respects, the real life events behind John Guare’s 1990 sleek satire of white liberal guilt are more intriguing than the play itself. Six Degrees of Separation is based on the story of David Hampton, the man who conned Manhattan in the 1980s by pretending to be Sidney Poitier’s son and then tried to sue the pants off Guare after he dared to write a play about it. (He also reportedly stalked Guare with phone calls and death threats.) Still, it’s a shame Guare was apparently more interested in what Hampton said about Manhattan than in Hampton himself, otherwise Six Degrees might have been a more satisfying play. Instead, nearly 20 years on, David Grindley’s expert revival at Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic reveals Guare’s play to be a slickly constructed riddle containing an enigma where, perhaps, a more fully sketched human being ought to be.
Against a set dominated by a curving Rothko wall and a spinnng, double-sided Kandinsky, Lesley Manville and Anthony Head are the urbane, stinkingly rich New York art dealers Ouisa and Flan, seduced by the magnetic charms of Paul (Obi Abili) when he arrives on their doorstep dripping in blood and pretending to know their two children at Harvard. Ingeniously flattering their sense of racial tolerance, Paul ends up staying the night – before pushing things too far by being discovered inflagrente with some chap off the street. Ouisa and Flan are not alone, either: their neighbours have also been tricked into giving shelter and money, and into thinking they’ve got roles as extras in Paul’s father’s forthcoming film version of Cats (celebrating Poitier being the ultimate USP of liberal New York in the 1980s).
Guare’s targets – elite WASPs who pride themselves on their cultural openness but are actually snobbish narcissists riven with deep fear of the other (racial and sexual) – haven’t gone out of date, and Guare is particularly good at skewering the triple layers of subtextual prejudice that lurk within everyday language. And through his cool portrait of racial and familial dislocation in New York (for all their wealth, Ouisa and Flan’s home is a hollow, lonely place to be), he deftly sends up the cosy, species, titular theory that we are only ever six people removed from anyone, anywhere in the world. Here, everyone from Paul to Flan and Ouisa’s ghastly, arch children suffers from various degrees of alienation.
Grindley beautifully steers the play’s many gear shifts and coaxes an impressive performance from Manville, who moves from brittle socialite to a woman caught up in genuine compassion for Paul and gradually implodes with unhappiness. (You do wish Spacey had taken on the role of Flan, though; in Head’s perfunctory performance he is too much a smarmy caricature to be truly enjoyably monstrous.) Still, there is something undeniably showboating about Guare’s waspishly witty script. He prefers to have his characters riff on ideas about art and philosophy rather than talk like human beings, and declaim to the audience rather than engage meaningfully with each other.
By far the best thing here is Obili, full of muscled, mercurial charm, dazzling intuitive intelligence and needy, desperate vulnerability as he pirouettes and smiles and bangs and clamours against glass walls and ceilings. Yet there’s only so much any actor can do with a character ultimately deployed as a dramatic device, as some sort of shape-shifting mirror for other people’s prejudices. Why does Paul con people the way he does? What, really, does he get out of it? It’s a pity Guare’s play is so busy puncturing easy targets it doesn’t bother to find out.


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