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by on 15 October 2019

Poignant Sensory Journey


by Terry Johnson

Hampstead Theatre and Birmingham Repertory Theatre at Richmond Theatre until 19th October, then on tour until 30th November

Review by Eleanor Marsh

Jack Cardiff, played here by a charismatic and highly energetic Robert Lindsay was a ground-breaking cinematographer and film director. He was responsible for the “look” of the stunning Powell and Pressburger movie classics including Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and A Matter or Life and Death as well as the incomparable African Queen. The Prism of the title is the very prism used to create the original colour palettes of these films.


The premise of the play is that Cardiff’s son, Mason (a bit of a thankless role until Act Two but someone must be the Ernie Wise to Cardiff’s Eric Morecambe), played by Oliver Hembrough is trying to get Cardiff to write his memoirs whilst he is still able. Cardiff (an absolute tour de force performance by Robert Lindsay) is suffering from the early stages of dementia and is an irascible old chap anyway. He would rather relive his memories than write them down. Thus his wife Nicola (Tara Fitzgerald), Lucy his carer (Victoria Blunt) and Mason are all perceived as the movie stars he worked with back in the day. It is a lovely device and becomes particularly poignant in the second act. The attitude of each member of the “family” to the actual writing of the memoirs is an excellent reflection of their relationship with Cardiff himself and each other.

Prism8Tim Shortall’s set is a delight to behold and holds many aides memoires in respect of the films on which Cardiff worked and the great stars he worked with. This, together with Ben Ormerod’s lighting and Ian William Galloway’s video design conspire to evoke the cinematic heyday of the 20th century.

The curtain on the first night at Richmond Theatre went up late, fifteen minutes late due to “technical issues”. With a play about a luminary of cinema there is no escaping the fact that – at least visually – it will be highly technical and, of course with a touring production the challenge of transferring to a different theatre each week cannot be underestimated.

Once the curtain went up however, the worry was that the incident had been with sound rather than anything else. The opening scene takes place behind a garage door, which gradually opens to allow the cast to enter. The gag is funny briefly but wears thin the longer it goes on, mainly as the dialogue being delivered at the very back of the stage and behind a metal screen was virtually unintelligible. This may not be the case in every theatre as acoustics are different everywhere but it’s another consideration that sometimes generic is best when touring.

And that, dear readers, is the last I have to say that is in any way negative about this excellent play and production.

Act One does an excellent job of setting up the plot and introducing the characters and the audience is left at the end of the act with a genuine desire to see how everything pans out. To say we were not disappointed with Act Two on opening night at Richmond is an understatement. The second act takes us on sensory journey that was (almost) totally unexpected. And I am not about to throw any spoilers into the mix but Victoria Blunt and Tara Fitzgerald both excel. Fitzgerald, in particular raised an audible “wow” from the audience when she appeared.


In short, Terry Johnson has written and directed a well-crafted, poignant and highly amusing play with some real laugh out loud moments. It has excellent performances, is visually stunning and the music and sound are as unobtrusive yet effective as in any good film. As a biographical piece it does exactly what it should – it makes the audience want to find out more about the subject. And it has the ability to make us laugh and make us think without ever being “lecturing” in style.

But in the final analysis the night belongs to Lindsay – an instantly likeable actor, able to deliver comedy and tragedy in equally effective measure. And he even throws in a song and dance routine – Bravo !

Eleanor Marsh
October 2019

Photography by Manuel Harlan

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