Double Helping of Hogarth

Rating: 4
Rating: 3

Hogarth's Progress: a Double Bill by Nick Dear The Art of Success, The Taste of Town

First performed in 1986, Nick Dear’s the art of success imagined the famous painter and engraver William Hogarth as an ambitious youth attempting to shimmy up the greasy pole of artistic success in the Georgian era. Twenty-two years on, Dear returns to his interpretation of hogarth with the taste of the town, a look at the man in later life, resting comfortably  – but not too happily – atop the aforementioned pole. This double bill at the kingston rose gives us both, with the same company appearing in both parts, save for stage veteran keith allen, who appears only in taste of the town as the elder hogarth. both the dear of today and the dear of 1986 know how to have fun with the material – historical accuracy is neither the aim nor the point. real events, where included, are jumbled and rearranged as dear pleases, and are liberally interspersed with flights of fantasy and surrealism from hogarth’s overactive imagination.

the art of success walks an admirably difficult tightrope. Young hogarth, charismatically portrayed by bryan dick, is simultaneously preoccupied with making his art accessible to everyone, not just the wealthy, and ensuring that he gets paid for it – the real hogarth is noted by history for his involvement with the passing of the 1735 engravers’ copyright act, informally known as ‘hogarth’s act’. this isn’t an impossible contradiction to resolve, just a difficult one, and any audience member could be justified in thinking of him as a free-spirited pragmatist or an insufferably hypocritical prig. the play, to be fair, doesn’t let him off the hook; indeed, it spends its running time efficiently dismantling the poor man, his hilarious pile-up of misfortunes bordering on farce.

hogarth himself was an interesting  contradiction, often given to prissy moralising but also fond of crude sexual humour in his caricatures. neither play is particularly interested in exploring this characteristic inconsistency – some coy references notwithstanding, it’s difficult to imagine either dick’s carousing firebrand or allen’s acerbic old sot being inclined to produce a work like Gin lane, which hectored the working classes for their drink of choice (all right, it was a bit more nuanced than that, but the point stands).

the taste of the town is a more sedate affair. it makes sense given that we’ve traded young, ambitious hogarth for the old and successful version, but that doesn’t make the notion of swapping dungeons and brothels for tea rooms and verandas any more appealing. it’s propped up by the cast, though – the more talky second half does let them show off how good they are. mark umbers as shakespearean(-ish) thesp david Garrick, sylvestra le touzel as hogarth’s mother-in-law lady thornhill, ian hallard as taste-making dandy horace Walpole – all excellent. there isn’t a weak link, to be honest.

the plays are a double bill on weekends and swapping back and forth on weeknights. there’s enough dramatic space between them that your evening will still be rewarding (and, honestly, less backside- punishing) if you only pick one. the art of success is all freewheeling anarchy and packs in a couple of genuinely great surprises to boot. taste of the town is slower, and lacking that unpredictable spark, but it’s heartfelt, witty and superbly performed.

At the Rose Theatre, London KT1, until 21 October: 020-8174 0090,