Planet Warhol comes to Peckham
Review: A Thousand Miles of History at The Bussey Building
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Harold Finley's latest play follows the lives of New York artists Jean Michel-Basquiat and Keith Haring. Both boys found fame and climbed the tiers of the art world before suffering tragic and untimely deaths. For Basquiat it was heroin overdose, for Haring AIDS.
Today gay artist Keith Haring's distinctive chunky stick men are still widely recognised and remain the commercial enterprise that he pushed for them to be before his death. In fact, they've enjoyed a bit of a renaissance of late with Google giving him his own "doodle" last year. Meanwhile, Basquiat is a popular cult artist and famous for an array of doings from his period as a celebrity on the New York party circuit, such as his dates with Madonna and his groovy appearance in a Blondie video:
Haring and Baquiat's paintings both managed to find some kind of life outside of the shadow of their idol and mentor Andy Warhol, but as individuals would the men ever manage to break free from Warhol's rapidly spreading pool of self-perpetuated celebrity, fame for fame's sake, capitalist ideals and his terrifying ethos - "business is the best art" ?
Running for two hours and forty minutes, the impressively well-researched play really bites the gay bullet and digs deep into the art world of late 70s-come-80s New York. The audience is taken on a to-the-bone tour of the down-town NYC gay culture of the period (including a very well-observed late-night sauna scene in which Haring meets his first lover Juan amidst a steamy and ghostly parade of towelled men.
The play is smartly choreographed, dotted with dance breaks, one highlight being a slow motion gay bar scene in which the movements and accentuations of the male body are explored against a kitsch backdrop of Madonna's now-buried hit Everybody. Lovers embrace, rotate and share each other's lovers in a heartfelt frenzy of soulful polyamorous passion.
The homo treasures, endeavours and philosophies of Haring's private life are well rendered on stage by Simon Ginty. Despite the young actor being five times (make that five hundred times) cuter than Haring ever had the fortune of being, Ginty gives a compelling and energetic pastiche of the zaney grinning bespectacled chalk artist. He is convincing when he kisses his on-stage boyfriend and his spiralling libertarian monologues are at once refreshing and haunting (given Haring's painful fate).
Basquiat is played by new actor Michael Walters. Fresh out of RADA, his career prospects are already looking good. Critics will no doubt go wild, so strong and vivid is his portrayal of the notorious artist, it's easy to forget at times that it's not actually Basquiat himself acting in the play!
Naturally the play's most attention-demanding character is it's most famous - Andy Warhol. Always a tough part to play given how well-known and mass-documented Warhol is (not to mention how many sterling actors have played him in the past).
Adam Riches delivers a brilliant and fixating impression of the silver-wigged mega star. Although a little stockier than old Andy was, Riches is much more convincing in the role than David Bowie ever was, if not quite as good perhaps as Guy Pierce in Factory Girl (but let's be fair now - they're two big stars in big movie projects, this is a cold fringe theatre in Peckham). Riches conjures Warhol's magical aura too, even making the audience gasp when he first appears by surprise in Act 1.
Already a successful comic in his own right, Riches indulges in Warhol's humorous side and cannot resist breaking the fourth wall once or twice, drawing parallels between Warhol's pysche and that of a stand-up comedian. The biggest laugh in the whole evening comes when a restaurant dinner party ends in a heated argument and Riches/Warhol turns a simple quip into a razor-sharp punchline. I won't give away the scene here - go see it for yourself!
Having conquered Warhol's creepiness, power and wit, Riches finally goes on (quite magnificently) to reveal the myriad of Warhol's vulnerabilities and insecurities that eventually melted him (if not his legacy). It's well worth going to see this play if only to catch Adam Riches giving a great evening of Warholian one-liners.
Despite the play's rich and vibrant gay characters though, the top performance of the show for me came from supporting actress Lisa Carrucio Came, playing the part of New York gallery owner Mary Boone. Came perfectly captures that icy duality of a gallerist who cares for her clients well-being but above all wants to make money. Again the role is very well researched and references Boone's influences, upbringing and formative years, exploring her own failed attempts at fine art and her rocky immigrant childhood. There's something Mia Kirshner about her wondrous performance as Came casts a strange spell over the audience, becoming both the play's villain and one of its victims.
All in all, a great evening of theatre. A fascinating new play with some fabulous performances.
The entrance to the Bussey Building is tucked into a cute alleyway, just across the road and to the right from Peckham Rye station (regular trains from London Bridge, and you can use your Oyster).
A Thousand Miles of History is on there until the end of this month. Here's the show's site. Tickets are £10-£14. Go!
Words: Jack Cullen