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Martin Bendel as Julian in Studies for a Portrait
Julian [Martin Bendel]

Drawn from life

Review by Corinna Lotz

Quick-fire verbal sparring between gay lovers makes for a mesmerising evening in Daniel Reitz’ hilarious and wrenching new play which sees its world premiere at London’s White Bear Theatre Club. 4 star

Reitz, a luminary of New York’s off-Broadway theatre, takes you places where most would fear to tread. His Studies for a Portrait probes the unadorned realities of love and death through the life of Julian Barker (Martin Bendel), a celebrated fictitious American artist of the Pop Art generation.

Julian, even while dying of cancer, is the alpha-male in a series of love-triangles which are the fabric of this play.  He “couldn’t say no” to Chad, who ensnared him on a beach five years before the action begins. At that time, the famous artist was hitched up with fellow painter and long-term lover, Marcus (David Price).

Chad, convincingly played by a mercurial James Holmes, is an unashamed rags-to-riches operator, a self-professed “real-estate queen”, who is determined to enhance his partnter’s reputation and market-worth. He is simultaneously manipulative and solicitous of Julian, encouraging him to keep on working in his studio in defiance of his illness. Chad tries to prevent the artist from overdosing on a suicidal mixture of medication and priceless vintage wines.

James Holmes and Stepen Hagan as Chad and Justin in Studies for a Portrait
Chad & Justin [James Holmes, Stephen Hagan]

Outstanding in the non-stop hilarious exchanges is the moment when Chad fields a call from the White House. Bush has offered the artist a presidential award – a National Medal for the Arts.  Julian's response is: “Fuck them – I’m refusing it and I will say why”. He imagines himself with George W in the Oval office talking about “hanging Chads”.  “Tell them to bubble-wrap it and send it to me,” he says later on, after Chad has accepted the award, in defiance of Julian's instructions.

David Price as Marcus in Studies for a Portrait
Marcus [David Price]

A full-blown and wonderfully bitchy confrontation pits the morose lover Marcus against control-freak Chad. Stinging under-the-belt accusations rage between them. Chad mocks Marcus with his lack of success - “there won’t be any Yahoo-news about you!” But when Chad suggests that yesterday’s man Marcus is self-seeking, Marcus retorts with the superb line: “You questioning my morals is like Hitler complaining that Poland whimpered!”

Enter Chad’s beautiful glowing-with-youth lover, Justin, a 19-year-old underwear model.  “Who left the nursery door open?” Marcus demands satirically, as the sexual tension mounts. Justin desperately longs to be associated with celebrity and seduces Julian into painting his portrait… and some. As with those high-powered intellectual Miss Worlds who feature in beauty contests, his puppy-like dopiness in fact disguises a well-developed instinct for furthering his own interests, even more astutely than Chad. It dawns on Julian that “the youngest is probably the smartest amongst the lot of you”.

There is a sense of claustrophobia as the four warily circle one another like caged animals. Each seems trapped in circumstances beyond his control. “Pity the widows,” is the sad refrain uttered prophetically by Marcus, referring to the favoured but doomed partners of Francis Bacon, Modligiani and Picasso. 

The classic story of young talent ruthlessly jockeying for position in an artistic hierarchy is, in some ways, a gay update of Joseph Mankiewicz’ 1950 film, All About Eve. Studies for a Portrait is also in the great tradition of irreverent, anarchic humour and fast-flowing repartee pioneered by Joe Orton. It is a no-holds-barred send-up of contemporary celebrity culture and a sharp look at how people sell their souls to rub shoulders with success. In the end, Chad is left with wealth but he has to pay a heavy price.

Directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher and produced by Simon Beyer, this play will keep you on the edge of your seat, laughing and crying. It’s a snip at The White Bear Theatre Club’s low prices. Don’t miss it.

Studies for a Portrait is at the White Bear Theatre, 138 Kennington Park Rd, Kennington SE11 4RB
until February 1.  020 7793 9193  

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