Art might never have seen the light of British theatres had not Sean Connery and his francophone wife seen a Paris production in 1994 and bought the rights.  Its author, Yasmina Reza, thought she had written a tragedy but since the first Old Vic production in London thanks to its guying of Parisian mannerly pretension it’s been hailed as an hilarious satirical comedy.

Its three nicely-suited, richly-fruited white middle-aged male roles have been a vehicle for countless actors resting on theatrical or televisual laurels – the League of Gentlemen trio of Shearsmith, Gatiss and Pemberton were in the cast in 2003.   One wealthy dermatologist buys a “200 grand” painting which is almost pure white, and his friends’ reaction develops into an earnest questioning of their 25-year friendship and some wonderfully bitchy bickering.

For us Brits, minimalism lies somewhere between bemusing and downright funny – whether it’s John Cage’s musical composition 4’33” where the orchestra stays silent, architect John Pawson’s undecorated all white houses, or Yves Klein’s monochrome paintings, we’ve always sent it up.

This is in no way ‘coasting’ work as the roles are tricky to play and the current triumvirate certainly give of their best.  As Serge and Marc, Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson need to get the audience on side while portraying quite unpleasant characters: snobbish, rich, patrician and, worst of all, French.   Even the translation by Christopher Hampton doesn’t mask the origin of the phrasing in the dialogue.

Stephen Tompkinson’s younger, less bourgeois, stationery salesman Yvan is the relief, and it gives him opportunity for at least two splendid diatribes including a five-minute riff on the rival family demands for names to appear on a wedding invitation that simply brought the ‘maison’ down.  He’s using the same comic verbal dexterity and defensive body language that made his dodgy war correspondent ‘Damian Day’ such a delight in Drop the Dead Donkey.

As Nigel Havers says in this lovely interview with a very young reporter from Birmingham – ‘the great thing about it is you can be in the pub by 9’.


At Richmond until March 9, then touring