Six Degrees of Separation

  • Our critic's rating:
    Wednesday, January 20, 2010
    Review by:
    Peter Brown

    The term 'Six Degrees of Separation' refers to the notion that anyone in the world is only six steps away from making contact with someone else. The people you know count as one step, and the people they know count as another and so on. It's an idea concerned with social networks and the fact that the world is a smaller place than we might imagine. You may have encountered the concept in the game 'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon' where you have to link film actors to Kevin Bacon in no more than six connections, based on the films they have acted in.

    Having had its debut on Broadway in 1990, it's been over 18 years since the stage version of 'Six Degrees of Separation' was last seen in London. John Guare's play was also made into a film in 1993 starring Will Smith, Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland, and there have been a number of TV series which have focused on the concept, and even some social networking sites exploit the 'Six Degrees' premise.

    So, how does this idea that we can get in touch with anyone on the planet in just six simple steps relate to the play? The answer is that, apart from making social connections, it doesn't seem to have very much to do with it at all. But it rather depends on your point of view. The plot provides some clues, but no definite answers.

    An American couple, Ouisa and Flan, live in a swanky apartment in New York. They're art dealers who are trying to clinch a two million dollar deal for a painting. They're about to leave for dinner with a chum from South Africa when a young black man, Paul, bursts in dripping with blood, seeking sanctuary after being mugged. He says he knows their children and seems to know a great deal about them too. More than that, he's a great conversationalist, and has the rich threesome spellbound with his oratory... and his cooking abilities. He also claims to be the son of Sidney Poitier. Naturally enough, the art dealers invite him to stay over but are awoken early the next morning by strange sounds - Paul is having sex with a rent boy, and is quickly asked to leave.

    It's not long before Ouisa and Flan learn that another couple they know have also been Paul's 'victims', though he's not stolen anything from either couple. In what follows, we learn how Paul managed to make the 'connections' and worm his way in with New York's wealthy. It turns out to have more to do with sex and duplicity than with multiple networking connections.

    Obi Abili, as Paul, is quite astonishing. He sounds like Sidney Poitier, and his mannerisms seemed a good match too. The key to making the role work is to persuade us that he can manipulate other people and impress them with his persona and ideas. Obi Abili manages to do all these things and more. It's a hugely convincing and confident performance and flags Abili as an actor to look out for in the future.

    Lesley Manville, as Ouisa, starts off as a swish and confident socialite, who is focused on making money. But, by the end of the play she's transformed into a kind of mother figure who seems more concerned with Paul's well-being than his ideals.

    Anthony Head provides excellent support as the suave art dealer Flan, but is ultimately unmoved by the events which have taken place. I enjoyed the teenagers' roles – Fran and Ouisa's children and the offspring of their wealthy friends – even if they were stereotypes, they were very funny.

    Short (ish) at around 90 minutes, there's nevertheless a huge amount packed in to the play. Amazing if you also consider that there are a number of fairly lengthy speeches in there. Art figures appropriately in the set design which comprises walls in the style of Mark Rothko, and the whole thing is well-orchestrated by director David Grindley.

    The play is based on the exploits of a real-life con man, David Hampton, who duped celebrities in the early 1980s by pretending to be Sidney Poitier's son. Caught in 1983, incarceration did not stop Hampton from perpetrating his cons with new victims. He died in 2003.

    Like the socialite 'victims' in the play, perhaps we're duped into thinking that the play is about bringing people together, when it's really about what keeps them apart. In other words, though we may well be able to contact any person on the planet in just 6 steps, it doesn't mean that when you do get in touch with someone you're going to get on, share the same values or have some kind of meaningful relationship. On the other hand, Ouisa seems to be deeply affected by her encounter with this young man. Her swanky New York lifestyle may never be the same again. The suggestion is that if you are open to new ideas, fresh challenges and allow your imagination some freedom you won't be constrained by the restrictions a chosen lifestyle can impose.

    Polished and enjoyable, 'Six Degrees of Separation' keeps you involved and interested throughout. But I think the play has less to do with the 'Six Degrees' concept, and more to do with having a catchy title to bring in the punters.


    "Rigorously assured revival ."
    Paul Taylor for The Independent

    "Absorbing revival ."
    Benedict Nightingale for The Times

    "It never moves one."
    Michael Billington for The Guardian

    "The play is smart, sharp, funny and briefly touching, but it is essentially little more than an enjoyable comedy about a con artist."
    The Daily Telegraph

    "It has pace and wit, but not in the end a great deal of substance."
    Henry Hitchings's for The Evening Standard

    External links to full reviews from popular press
    Times - Telegraph - Guardian - Independent

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