Six Degrees of Separation (Old Vic 8/2/10) 9 February 2010

I've always loved John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation. I read it long before I finally saw the production, oh so many years ago. It was in LA, the touring version with Marlo Thomas as matriarch Ouisa ('wee-zah') the role made famous on Broadway by Stockard Channing who later reprised the role in the original London production. I enjoyed that version but it didn't really hit me as I thought it would. Possibly because I had read it so much my vision of the performances overshadowed what I witnessed on stage.

A few years later we all had the opportunity to see Stockard Channing play Ouisa when the film version was released. Filming this play was always going to be difficult prospect as the structure is very theatrical in it's presentation. As a result it didn't transfer well. What also didn't transfer well was the central performance by Will Smith as Paul. I have always been bemused at the laudits bestowed upon his performance as it was just not right (I always thought the critics and the public were actually saying that they loved Will Smith attempting serious drama).

The role of Paul is the hook upon which everything else must hang and I am very pleased to report that in this Old Vic production, Obi Abili excels. He has not only managed to find all the nuances of character but has the acting chops to make the character his own. Paul is a very complex character and to play it well you have to play all your cards very close to your chest and be absolutely convincing with each card you reveal. I more than anyone, am surprised to be saying that, especially since he was the one reason I originally didn't want to see this production. I had seen Obi in the recent-ish production of Angels in America (one of my all time favourites) at the Lyric Hammersmith and I wasn't impressed with his performance - at all. (see my post of Prick up Your Ears for more on this and it's director Daniel Kramer).

For those of you who aren't familiar with Six Degrees of Separation I'll give you a quick rundown of the story - but will leave out some of the developments that I think are best left to discover for yourselves.
John Guare's play is loosely based on an actual situation where a con man, pretending to be the son of a famous actor, swindled some wealthy New Yorkers out of money. I say loosely based because Six Degrees of Separation delves into the relationships between all involved parties, notably the parents and their children. The main couple are Ouisa (Lesley Manville - All about My Mother, Old Vic; Pillars of the Community and His Dark Materials, National Theatre) and her husband Flan (Anthony Head - Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Rope and Chess in the West End) unconventional Manhattan art dealers who are all consumed with the next big art deal and maintaining their wealthy existence. Into the story comes Paul, a friend of their children who are away at college and who may be too good to be true.

One thing I love about this play is how its formed and structured. We enter the story directly after a disturbing event where Ouisa and Flan think they have been robbed. It then moves back to the events leading up to that moment and then moves forward to what happens after. Ouisa and Flan also directly address the audience in a manner in keeping with how they relate to each other, stopping and correcting the other. Like with the recent Midsummer: a play with songs, I have never been a fan of this technique but in certain circumstances (Midsummer and this play) it works a charm. Mainly because it furthers the story and helps develop the characters. It's also useful for stories that span a great length of time. In Six Degrees, it's used sparingly but to great effect.

Lesley Manville is wonderful as Ouisa and Anthony Head is really good as Flan. In fact, all the performances are good. I have been asked if it's a three actor play. Not at all. In total it's a cast of sixteen, and they are all wonderful. This is a somewhat stylised play that requires sometimes heightened versions of reality - such as Ouisa and Flans children and their friends. Each character is wonderfully delineated and no one slips into stereotype (and have really good American accents).

I had a concern going in that this play, which was written in and takes place in the late 1980's, might not hold up in 2010. There are elements that are definitely of that time - technology of course, and cultural references - most notably to the musical Cats - but director David Grindley (Philanthropist, Donmar; Some Girls and Journeys End, West End) has wisely retained the late 1980's setting and it doesn't come across as a period piece.

I may sound a bit vague about this play but as I mentioned before, there are many little elements which though not a huge 'shock' surprise (except one - and the little touch of wearing a condom was genius) I feel not knowing what is going to happen or where the story is going will only add to the enjoyment. It's a little like a detective story as more and more elements and details are uncovered as you go along. I think that many feel they should be moved by the various stories and situations that crop up but I don't feel that's true. It works mainly on an intellectual level, in that it deals with the subjects of race, family, parenting, wealth, sexuality and trust, but that's not to say that it has it's emotional elements as well. A I think it's well worth seeing and you would be hard pressed to find many plays as well structured and written as this. I don't like seeing the joins when I go to the theatre and I find this seamless. But of course, there are two sides to every story.