Art/Malvern Theatres

THE timing just couldn’t be better. As Britain reels like a Saturday night drunk through the Brexit crisis, with friendships collapsing by the minute under the blows of mortal disagreement, Yazmina Reza’s sharply observed satire is bang on target.

Serge (Nigel Havers) has just shelled out a six-figure sum for a chunk of modern art and cannot understand why pal Marc (Denis Lawson) is somewhat less than congratulatory.

The piece in question comprises several square feet of white paint, not exactly a blank canvas, but arguably not a great deal more.

Desperate dilettante Serge soon finds himself at odds with the blunt-tongued Marc, whose criticism of what he regards as pretentious tosh soon veers from biting sarcasm to outright aggression.

Caught in the middle is the more laid-back Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson) who just wishes they could all go back to the way they were before the wretched painting had arrived in their midst.

Basically, this is a fresh take on the Emperor’s New Clothes, this time involving relationship breakdown brought about by clashing ideology. Serge quickly grasps what’s happening, and in desperation suggests that Marc reads Seneca, a philosopher from the ancient world who probably knew a thing or two.

What makes this powerful piece fascinating is its relevance to the present, with its broken politics and irreconcilable differences over Brexit.

Although first staged in the 1990s, its creator quite obviously identified the flaw in human nature that renders so many of us incapable of tolerating the opposing view, even to the point of wrecking friendships.

Marc is a textbook example of such a person, the individual who just cannot cope when his world of absolutes and certainties is challenged.

He rants and rages, venting his anger not only at the absurdly overpriced daub, but also at his friend, who is appalled at his erstwhile friend’s bigotry.

Director Ellie Jones guides the three protagonists through this emotional minefield with verve and pace, bringing the best out of these three master craftsmen of British theatre.

Art runs at Malvern Theatres until Saturday (March 2) and is firmly recommended.

John Phillpott