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Review By Thom Dibdin
Responsible for popularising the idea that every person in the world is just six connections from every other, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation is a play about greed and envy; about what happens when those six connections are reduced to just one.
It is set in the rarified atmosphere of New York’s Fifth Avenue in the early 1990s, where the privileged few hold dinner parties and worry about finding another $2 million to fund the purchase of a Cezanne.
Ross Hope brings a clear directorial style to the Grads’ excellently staged production, prioritising the play itself over the creation of side-splitting characters. A simple, open set and Gordon Hughes’ strong lighting design help keep everything clear.
Grads newcomer Kenneth Brangman takes on the lead role of Paul, a young black man who turns up at the apartment of art dealer Flan Kittredge and his wife Ouisa. Bleeding from a stab wound, Paul says he has been mugged and turned to them as parents of his friends at Harvard.
Regulars David Grimes and Lorraine McCann play Flan and Ouisa, arbiters of taste amongst the elite, whose pride in owning a double-sided Kandinsky is only overpowered by their desire to make another multimillion purchase of a piece of art to sell-on to a consortium of Japanese businessmen.
Grimes and McCann purvey that heady mix of greed for personal wealth with cultural intoxication at the thought of being at the centre of the overpriced art set. It is masked by a mannered veneer of sophistication as they suck up to a South African gold mine-owning friend Georgie (Wendy Mathison), who might be able to invest the $2 million they are short for the deal.
The veneer is only cracked when Paul reveals himself to be the son of Sidney Poitier. He is in town ahead of his father who, he confides in the increasingly star-struck Kittredges, will be arriving the next day to cast a film version of the musical, CATS.
While Brangman brings a smoothness and articulacy to Paul, Grimes, McCann and Mathison take delight in revealing the liberal snobbery of their characters.
The juxtaposition of Paul’s colour against Georgie’s position in Apartheid South Africa and the possibility of being extras in a Sidney Poitier film against it being of such a despicably lowbrow product as CATS, is deliciously worked out in the text and cleverly brought out by all involved.
Monaghan has to know exactly where to keep his hat
This is not a simple four-hander, however, but a multilayered piece which boasts a 17-strong cast as Paul is revealed as a con-artist who, it appears, is trying the same trick on a succession of parents of students at Harvard. Every time working with consummate ease on their snobbery and liberal elitist attitude.
The cracks first begin to show on morning following Paul’s first entry into the Kittredges’ lives. After the triumph – his presence helped seal the deal with Georgie – comes the fall. A foul-mouthed gay hustler emerges from his room in a beautifully staged scene in which Michael Monaghan, as the hustler, has to know exactly where to keep his hat.
Soon the Kittredges’ bickering friends Kitty and Larkin – a couple who Cari Silver and Richard Godden have great fun in portraying – are telling of their own encounter with Paul. When the obvious answer of verifying Paul’s claims by contacting Sidney Poitier fails, the children are brought in to help – with bolshy overstatement from Helen McMillan, Jay West and Charlie Beaumont.
As the play unfolds there some particularly strong scenes from the minor characters. Jamie Smith is superb as Trent in a sensitively played-out scene with Paul. Matt Davies and Mary Clare bring a real polish to their portrayal of young couple Rick and Elizabeth who befriend Paul in Central Park.
But in it all, the Kittredges fail. Fail to find the truth out about Paul. The point being, that despite their pretensions and contacts, in failing to contact Sidney Poitier to verify Paul’s claims, they reveal themselves to be much more closely connected to New York’s vagrants than Hollywood’s stars.
As a production, this does suffer from the quietness of a cast who seem to have modulated their voices down for the small space. The accents are not always perfect and there would have been room for both Grimes and McCann to create more forceful – and interesting – characters in the Kittredges.
Not that any of these observations is to take anything away from Ross Hope’s success in revealing the truth of John Guare’s script: we might all be six connections away from the top – but the number of connections to get to the bottom is rather fewer.
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes
Run ends Saturday 7 April 2012
Shows: daily 7.30pm;.
Grads Website: www.egtg.co.uk