Review: Prism at The Birmingham Rep

Richard Lutz takes his pew for a moving journey through the past.

This play is a gem, a poignant piece about a famous film cameraman who loved Hollywood’s leading ladies and made them as beautiful as they could hope. Jack Cardiff was at his height in the forties and fifties and captured on film A-listers such as Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. Some became friends. Some were lovers.

Robert Lindsay plays the British legend with flare and muscle. His elderly Cardiff is testily falling into the void of dementia, overseen by his son, his wife and a neophyte carer. He hovers between muddled present and vivid memories of the past when he filmed gems such as The African Queen, The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death and (my favourite) The Vikings.

Lindsay paints Cardiff as a real but funny pain in the neck as he mixes everything up with his glamorous back story and his fast-vanishing normal daily life. Lindsay, ever the subtle and canny actor, gives us a man who can one minute raise a laugh as he re-captures his former barbed repartee but repel us a minute later  as he angrily swipes away any help from his worried family. He makes this play zing with power and, for those who’ve had  to deal with dementia in a family, hum with humanity.

Terry Johnson wrote and directed the play which ran in London. He uses the technique of capturing Cardiff in his salad days by re-creating the cameraman boozing and hell-raising while filming Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. Did he have a fling with La Hep? Was Bogie as thick headed as he remembers? The production is boosted by stunning back projections and video that can summon up an African jungle, a movie set or a stunning South Pacific sunset- they all help fill the large Rep stage.

Lindsay roams from present day dementia to Cardiff’s heyday of the 1950’s just as a semi-senile mind  suddenly can jump from Today to The World of Yesterdays. It’s a grand performance of failing powers. Supporting actors Tara Fitzgerald as his wife, Oliver Hembrough as his son and Victoria Blunt as the helper all give it a go (with sometimes questionable American accents) as they also summon up Monroe, Hepburn, Bogart, Arthur Miller and Lauren Bacall.

But minor stumbles apart, this is a great play; literate, knowing, sometimes poetic, sometimes bruising but always a gift for the theatre-goer and movie lover. It’s on until Saturday 12th October.Tickets