Un-Titled is among the rarest of Fringe productions: one that’s funny – genuinely, gaspingly, stitch-inducingly funny – but intelligent and thought-provoking, too. The story centres on ageing artist Gert (played with sensitivity and insight by Lesley Arnold), as she prepares for the unveiling of her seminal, as-yet untitled new work. Her life’s been defined by critical acclaim, but she’s secretly unhappy with what she’s achieved. And she has another secret, too: because when she’s alone, behind the closed doors of her studio… the paintings around her come to life.
This isn’t, admittedly, the most original of gimmicks, but playwright Katy Matthews makes full use of its comic potential. In a genius move, one of the animated artworks is in fact a bust – played with heroic commitment by Cyril Blake, who delivers the whole performance with his body concealed inside a pedestal. “Buster”, as Gert calls him, is high art and he knows it; he’s prissy and pretentious, though he’s also picked up a few hilarious swear-words from his bohemian owner.
Trefor Levins, meanwhile, has tremendous fun as the raffish Laughing Cavalier. His wiggling eyebrows are a performance in themselves – from which, for the sake of my composure, I occasionally had to avert my eyes – and his chivalrous distress when Picasso’s Weeping Woman bursts into tears is rather touching too. But perhaps the most interesting of the artworks is known only as the Lady; an old-style symbol of beauty, prone to increasingly elaborate swoons, it eventually emerges that she has an unexpected significance to the resolutely feminist Gert. Actor Rachael Sparkes is impressive in this role, particularly when her character takes a new direction in later scenes.
Yet underpinning all this comedy there’s a genuine philosophical debate, which begins to supplant the humour as time goes on. Artist Gert is losing her confidence, and perhaps losing her way; looking back on her life, she laments the decisions she’s made and the times when she strayed from the path of creative truth. Her animated artworks are supportive friends, and seek to guide her through this minefield of self-doubt – with results that are always comic, but often poignant as well.
And the central premise – that the pictures Gert has painted can come to life – opens the way to a surprising, disturbing meeting, which fits the storyline perfectly but which I entirely failed to predict. Under Judey Bignell’s direction, Aycan Garip turns in an especially clever portrayal of this new visitor; calmly distant and mechanical, she provokes emotion without herself delivering it.
Some big topics emerge from the conversation – old age, feminism, ambition, integrity – and there’s also an intelligent undercurrent of creative critique, asking whether great artists’ “manifestos” define or constrain them. But that’s a lot to cover in 65 minutes, and the ending is rather long-winded, with a few too many final thoughts crammed in. The closing gambit feels a bit of a cheat as well, relying on something about the workings of the animated pictures which has never been mentioned before.
So it’s a shame that the script loses some pace and shape at the end, but a light trim would be all that’s needed to turn this into a five-star show. Overall then, this play about art is itself finely drawn, with just the right balance of humour and thought. It’s a triumph for both writer and director, and a credit to a hard-working, plainly-talented cast.