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Theatre review Pottery class

JAN WOOLF applauds the musical dramatisation of a life where songs accompany the messy and marvellous stage business of throwing pots

In Clay
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
Highgate Village, London

FIRST the set: the 1930s Parisian artist’s studio is an installation in itself; easels, pots, brushes, drapes, canvases and a potter’s wheel, inviting us in, preparing us for something very classy. 

And that’s what we get as Marie-Berthe Cazin (Rosalind Ford) sings the story of her relationships and creative development in a French accent. Her true subject is clay, more than her husband Michel or her friend Natalie. 

Clay! The visceral process of working it, holding and working lumps, actually throwing a pot on the wheel, teasing a camembert shaped pat into a pot — she’s dancing with the stuff. After that, the ecstasy of firing and the upset of the pot cracking. And later, songsplaining how the Japanese find beauty in the broken. 

Marie-Berthe sings us through artist envy — the mannerisms and hypocrisies of the art world. And Michel’s call up in 1914 that leads to the beautiful song Empty Letters, full of pain and anguish at the miscommunication with a beloved at the front. She recounts her numerous friends’ condolences at his death with “I’m sorry for your loss,” although this felt like too contemporary a phrase. And she seems to get over it pretty quickly, but there’s a lot of her life to cover in 90 minutes.  

The voice and the music open the emotional valves and as Rebecca Simmond’s lyrics find their way in, the songs are beautiful. There’s a lot of sung art criticism too (“But give me Cezanne any day”) that almost causes one to wonder whether this is a new genre of art writing.  

Marie Berthe’s salvation is the excitement and intensity of making art, even though she had to go through her personal abandonment of the need for fame and fortune. There’s a dramatic moment when she drops a pot — we think it is a real, not staged accident (that smash is a great piece of percussion) — and she puts it back together with special glues, all the while singing, as though it were a metaphor for putting herself back together after her own trials of loss and failed ambition.   

And we attend as she discovers, through emotional alchemies, that the measure of an artist is not defined by what they earn or how famous they are. That happiness is intrinsic to the creative process when you commit to it.  

Actor/singer Rosalind Ford carries the show and she’s flawless, but it is the triumph of a collaboration of creatives: director Grace Taylor, writer Rebecca Simmonds, composer Jack Miles and Matt Herbert’s on-stage four-piece band. And the true story itself, of course, of the overlooked ceramicist Marie-Berthe Cazin, whose work at the time was thought be that of her successful husband or his successful father, and so joining the ranks of so many other overlooked female artists. 

But her personal success is the way that she discards her own ego. 

This fine production honours such women and the evening is accompanied by a terrific exhibition of pottery by 20 female potters and ceramicists in the Green Room. For assembling both the show and accompanying exhibition, raise your glasses to producers Annlouise Butt and Isaac Bernier-Doyle of Chromolume for creating another exciting venture Upstairs at the Gatehouse. 

It got a standing ovation on press night. 

Runs until April 7. Box office: (020) 8340-3488, upstairsatthegatehouse.com.

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