John and Robert work on a lot of plays together and have become more than familiar, but their closeness does not extend beyond the theatre. John is considerably younger, and although respectful of Robert, the generational gap that exists between the two is incontrovertible. The theatre that they practise is an ancient art form, passed down through the years from old to young, and in A Life In the Theatre, we are always conscious of John’s progression towards an inevitable taking over of Robert’s veteran position, in a perpetually reconstituting cycle of life and art, that tends to escape our daily consciousness despite its omnipresence.
David Mamet’s work of comedy is an acerbic yet deeply loving tribute to the people who make theatre, featuring fractured observations of the many absurd moments commonly experienced by those who work the stage, flattering and otherwise, but always meaningful on account of the honesty from which these vignettes are derived. All of human behaviour is funny from the right distance, and Mamet’s faux cynical attitude offers excellent opportunity for a great many laughs.
Director Helen Dallimore steers her production (set and costume by Hugh O'Connor) into madcap territory appropriate to the writing style, for a delightful and endearing portrayal of artists at work. The production’s rhythm suffers unfortunately, from frequent disruption due to its many sequences involving the cast going through costume changes on stage, causing energy levels to take a tumble at the end of every scene.
The actors however, provide detailed performances that insist on our attention at every step of the way. Both Akos Armont and John Gaden are resolutely present and thorough in their depiction of a profession fuelled by unbridled passion and ceaseless anxiety. Also noteworthy is Christopher Page’s lighting design, sensitively conceived and boldly executed, adding gloss and dynamism to an otherwise ordinary setting of backstage drabness.
Life is at its most real when the idiosyncrasies of individuals are able to be revealed. The quirky characters in A Life In the Theatre allow us to perceive the universality of our insecurities and irrationality, along with the benevolence and optimism that are fundamental to how we can make sense of existence. We may never come to a complete understanding of life or art, yet it is the participation that counts for everything.