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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Old Masters
Comedy Theatre       Summer 2004

What a joy it is to watch Edward Fox act! Like a senior athlete, he is in such absolute control of his craft that he not only makes everything seem smooth and easy, but also guarantees you the pleasure of watching grace and style in action.

You relax the minute he comes onstage, confident that you are in the presence of a master.

Of course he has limits. He could never have played Stanley Kowalski, for example. But his range is far broader than it seems at first.

He can play urbane and witty, urbane and philosophical, urbane and menacing, urbane and comic, urbane and damaged.

Always there is the seemingly impermeable shell of the perfect gentleman, through which he delicately lets us catch glimpses of something beneath. And always there is the unmistakable sense of both actor and character toying expertly with us, having real fun up there.

Fox is the major, but not only reason to see Simon Gray's new play, which is that old-fashioned but thoroughly satisfying West End staple, a well-made theatre piece with no real purpose beyond being a vehicle for an engaging and entertaining cast.

Fox plays an actual person, the art expert Bernard Berenson, who in the first half of the 20th century was the world's foremost authority on old master paintings, the final voice on whether a given work was really by Titian or Rembrandt or whoever.

For much of his career he worked as a consultant to premiere art dealer Joseph Duveen. Gray's play imagines Berenson and Duveen in 1937, as the dealer tries to get the critic to authenticate a painting as being by one artist when Berenson thinks it is by another.

The difference is a matter of a million dollars in 1937 money, and the core of the play is the fun of watching the men spar, wheedle, bargain and counterpunch.

Peter Bowles plays Duveen as loveable rogue, the type you'd enjoy spending an evening with but count the silverware when he left, and he gives Fox real competition in the wit-and-charm stakes, making the central scenes of the play a complete delight to watch.

Also present are Barbara Jefford as Berenson's wife, Sally Dexter as his secretary/mistress and Steven Pacey as Duveen's assistant. But only Jefford, providing some emotional ballast to all that rampant wit and charm, is given opportunity to do much more than serve as straight man to the two stars.

Things get a bit soap opera-ish in the last third - two of the characters may be dying, some old resentments flare up, and the war is coming - but they don't seriously spoil the fun.

There really isn't much to this play on its own - Gray doesn't turn art into a metaphor as Tom Stoppard would, or give it political overtones as Alan Bennett did in his similar Question of Attribution.

There is just the pleasure of spending time in the company of Edward Fox and Peter Bowles, with a script designed to let them shine and direction (by Harold Pinter) that gives them all the time they need to win us over and play with us.

And for a thoroughly enjoyable evening in the theatre, that is more than enough.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Old Masters - Comedy Theatre 2004

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