As the opening intertitles let us know, Picasso Stole the Mona Lisa is loosely based on true events. When the Mona Lisa went missing from the Louvre in 1911, poet Guillaume Apollinaire was indicted of having stolen some statuettes, which the corrupt Joseph Géry had pilfered and, purportedly, displayed on Apollinaire’s mantelpiece. Under police pressure, Apollinaire implicated his friend, Pablo Picasso, in the theft. In this farce, written by Jamie Fenton and directed by Rhiannon Shaw, it is the Mona Lisa which Apollinaire and Picasso discover in the former’s apartment.
From the outset, contextual comedy comes to the fore, jibes about art abounding. Apollinaire’s comments on the positioning of various body parts in Picasso’s paintings are particularly amusing. The script is consistently funny and clever in equal measure, and it is hard to resist the notion that Fenton, rather than the protagonists, is the true star of the show. It is the cutting dialogue which makes the relationship between Apollinaire and Picasso so watchable, when it might otherwise descend into crassness.
Yaseen Kader’s portrayal of Picasso is in particular danger of crossing this boundary. Kader has what should be some of the strongest lines in the play, but many of them are delivered with a lack of nuance, and fall flatter than they should. Haydn Jenkins is more often compelling as Apollinaire. He plays his timorous, somewhat pathetic character with an air of emasculated fragility. In the physical aspects of their performances, however, both Kader and Jenkins succeed. Their naturally languorous dispositions have the wonderfully unsettling effect of making look like caricatures, while the moments at which the romance between the two almost spills over onto the stage are especially funny.
Colin Rothwell’s turn as lumbering policeman Claude is the best, though. His ridiculous, lumbering demeanour ensures that the comic potential of his French accent is fulfilled. Claude’s passive-aggressive perversion shines through in his deliverance of his chosen method of torture for Apollinaire; specifically, reading Gertrude Stein’s poetry. Natalie Reeve is always delightfully excitable as his sidekick Henri. She combines the suggestive and the embarrassed to great, Carry On-esque effect.
The respective roles of Elinor Lipman and Will Dalrymple as Madame and Monsieur Olivier are less defined. Dalrymple is particularly absurd, his flamboyant, slightly camp turn as Olivier juxtaposed with moments at which he runs on stage in the guise of various authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, before promptly disappearing.
It is nonsensical, but its overt surrealism helps to underscore that which is implicit in the rest of the play. An attempt to discard the Mona Lisa into the Seine is a more effectively absurd ruse, unfolding behind a screen with intertitles. Ultimately, inventiveness is the play’s principal appeal. That the acting, with the exceptions of Rothwell and Reeve, never quite does justice to the script is mostly not the consequence of poor performances, but testament to the excellence of the writing.
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Picasso Stole the Mona Lisa is on at the Corpus Playrom, 9.30pm until Saturday 24th. Get your tickets online at https://www.corpusplayroom.com/whats-on/comedy/picasso-stole-the-mona-lisa.aspx