Prism by Terry Johnson, Hampstead Theatre, 16 September 2017

The neighbours tried hard to put us off this one. Joy and Barry are film aficionados extraordinaire, having been “in the film biz” themselves. They are also knowledgeable about and great admirers of Jack Cardiff, who was one of the pioneers of colour cinematography. I suspect they found the piece uninformative and irritating.

I had trouble getting Daisy out of the house, after Joy had told her unequivocally that this play was garbage and that she & Barry had walked out in irritation at half time. I said we should judge the play for ourselves and we are both glad we did.

It is set at the end of Jack Cardiff’s life. The play tries to show Cardiff looking back on his fascinating life in cinema through the distorted lens of a long, lingering old age with advancing dementia.

I think we are supposed to see analogies between the cognitive distortions of dementia and the the natural distortions of light through prisms and colour lenses.  The latter can lead, ultimately, to beauty and clarity, whereas I’d suggest that dementia struggles to do that.

The play is also meant to show us the impact of Jack Cardiff’s success (and latterly his dementia) on his son Mason and his second wife Niki. I fear that both of those parts were underwritten, perhaps because both of those people are still alive. Indeed the son, Mason Cardiff, is credited as an associate producer of the Hampstead production. As is Robert Lindsay, who plays Jack Cardiff (rather brilliantly) and was very instrumental in encouraging this piece to be written and produced. I believe Lindsay was a neighbour of the Cardiff family in Denham, where the play is set.

Consequently, the normally excellent Claire Skinner had little material to work with, while I fear that Barnaby Kay who played Mason (and also vaguely attempted Humphrey Bogart and Arthur Miller) was stretched even by his sparse roles.

Actually we thought the stand out performance was Rebecca Night as the young carer, rather casually employed by the Cardiff’s to help Jack with his daily needs and also to help him write his autobiography. The young woman’s unfortunate story formed an interesting sub-plot – potentially more interesting, in my view; that sub-plot bubbled but didn’t really boil.

To my mind, Prism is certainly a flawed play. Terry Johnson is a very capable writer, but I think the conceits of this piece are inherently problematic and the cracks show throughout. There are some superb coups de theatre, though – not least when the boat scene of The African Queen more or less comes to life in front of our eyes on the stage, just before the interval.

Two scenes after the interval were genuine highlights – The African Queen one immediately after the interval and a scene soon after, in which we realise that an explosive earlier scene with the carer and family was perceived by Jack Cardiff to be with Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn and Arthur Miller.

On balance, we’re glad we have seen this play and glad that we have learnt a bit more about Jack Cardiff through it. But this is not one of Terry Johnson’s nor the Hampstead Theatre’s greatest hits.

Here’s a link to the Hampstead resource on this production.

Mixed reviews so not all that much shown at Hampstead – this search will find most of them for you.

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