Terry Johnson has written some wonderfully funny, wonderfully insightful, wonderfully thrilling plays. His latest play, Prism, is not one of them. Part biography, part analysis of a fading, but once brilliant, mind and the effect of that disintegrating intelligence on a family, it is both too clever and too trite to really work as absorbing theatre. Not even the presence of the luminous Claire Skinner can shake off the cloud of torpor that fogs up Prism.
Some plays grab your attention from the first second, beguiling you with words, images, sounds or something ineffable which is irresistible. Some plays start more slowly, but burn with energy and thought and finally consume you in the fire of their wit or wisdom, or just their panache. Some plays open with a bang but then fritter away the chance to leave a lasting impression. Others, like the Dodo, never take off at all.
Now playing at the Hampstead Theatre is Terry Johnson’s new play, Prism, based upon the life of Jack Cardiff, famed international cinematographer of hits such as The African Queen or The Prince And The Showgirl. It’s a Dodo.
Johnson himself directs here. One suspects the cold, precise eye of an independent mind would have served the writing better. The narrative assumes a lot of knowledge, about film, theatre, actors and the entertainment business and little clarity is provided for those, surely most of the audience, who are not steeped in such historical and ephemeral detail. To succeed, Prism needs to enlighten as well as entertain.
But, in Johnson’s hands, his Dodo dances dubiously, without any real sense of direction, to a denouement of dementia. And there is no much satisfying about the choreography of that dance or its overall sense.
Truly, the play never recovers from the stumbling opening of the garage door in the first scene.
Robert Lindsay plays Robert Lindsay (complete with references to his earlier triumph in Me And My Girl) rather than Jack Cardiff. It’s all too familiar and expected. Claire Skinner brings a naturalistic skepticism to her portrayal of Cardiff’s long-suffering wife, but despite her talents she cannot elevate this work above dreary.
The supporting cast do nothing to engage the audience or focus attention. Is it the writing? Is it them? Does it matter?
The Hampstead Theatre takes risks with new writing and does love a biographical play. But Prism, like several Dodos before it, tarnishes its reputation rather than adds lustre.
It’s a real shame.