Coming on like a neophile's wet dream, Dalston's Arcola Theatre starts the new year at a new venue with a specially commissioned play by Rebecca Lenkiewicz based on the life of JMW Turner, the famous nineteenth-century painter. Turner was something of a child prodigy and a legend, entering the Royal Academy at 14 and being buried a few miles from the Arcola in St Paul's Cathedral. The play covers the early to middle period of his life with his burgeoning career portrayed as a backdrop to the relationships with the women in his life: a mentally ill mother (Amanda Boxer), a local prostitute who becomes his model and confidante (Denise Gough) and his lover Sarah Danby (Niamh Cusack) by whom he has two daughters.
Turner himself is played by Toby Jones who, while not being a household name, has had an interesting career principally as a character actor; he was recently seen in presidential biopics Frost/Nixon and Oliver Stone's W. as well as being the voice of Dobby in the Harry Potter movies and a Nazi supervillain in this summer's Captain America. As a lead actor, he has the rare distinction of causing jealousy in both sexes by having snogged Daniel Craig in Infamous and tonight locking lips with the not unattractive Ms Cusack.
Jones is absolutely electrifying as the artist with his head in the clouds but tortured by the earthly demands on his time and emotions. The Arcola's seating puts the audience inches away from the action on three sides of the stage, all the better to watch Jones's face travel from elation to desperation, bemusement to anger, which are all beautifully expressed without a word. The occasionally coarse language amplifies the rich vein of humour running through Lenkiewicz's script and Gough is excellent as the straight-talking single mother who connects with Turner in a way no-one else has. Arcola founder Mehmet Ergen's direction is assured and never lets the pace flag.
This review will never have the same worth as the average picture, never mind one of Turner's, so we'll finish with this warning: see this play now or you may come to regret not having done so come awards-giving time.
The Painter is on at the new Arcola Theatre at 24, Ashwin Street until 12 February. The first ten performances (on 12, 13, 15, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22 (matinee), 22, 24 January are available at £10 but must be booked by phone. Tuesday nights are Pay What You Can subject to availability.
This production is a part of 'A Night Less Ordinary' - Free tickets for Under 26's! If you would like to take advantage of the preview offer please call the Arcola box office on 020 7503 1646 - these tickets are not available through their online booking service.