Anthony McCarten's new play The Collaboration at the Young Vic kicks off as you arrive in the auditorium with an 80s DJ set. It's toe-tapping, hip and creates a party, edgy, youthful yet nostalgic atmosphere.
Contrast this with the first scene in which we find Andy Warhol (Paul Bettany) being persuaded by his manager Bruno (Alec Newman) to work on a collaboration with young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeremy Pope).
Bettany's Warhol is buttoned up, stiff, contained, tidy and hates mess. His appeal in the art world isn't what it once was.
In the next scene, we meet Basquiat, whose star is firmly in the ascendant. He is having a similar conversation with Bruno, whom he also manages, and we see someone who is more fluid and loose in their body language, inquisitive and prowling. Someone who doesn't care about mess.
But this isn't just about physical differences; it's a play about different minds, different approaches to art and different lives.
The first half is a verbal sparring match, the two artists having reluctantly agreed to work together. They clash on the purpose of art, what it's for and whether it can heal.
Warhol's art is planned, slow, particular and calculated its value, ironically, dismissed as nothing. Basquiat's art is spontaneous, rooted in emotion. It is about expression and saying something.
It seems like a pairing that could never work, but work the two do, and what emerges isn't just art but something more. Art and creativity become the uniting force for Warhol, whose protective persona has been built, in part, out of fear of his past self.
While Basquiat is fearless in his authenticity, in a society that is unjust and sometimes brutal to people of his colour and background.
Their working partnership - and the friction - shifts as they get to know each other.
Are their hints of exploitation? Perhaps. but their is also friendship, the true depth of which is not revealed until tragedy strikes.
Devastating to watch
Pope's performance is rich, delicate, endearing and at times devastating to watch.
His ex-girlfriend (Sofia Barclay) tell's Warhol that being around Basquiat makes her want to bathe him, and, watching The Collaboration, you can understand how he would unconsciously bring out that nurturing, soothing side in those around him.
Bettany's Warhol contrasts beautifully. It is a performance powered by a subtle character arc, and that is as it should be.
I was gripped in the presence of two great artists and gripped by their stories. I laughed, I gasped, I cried, and, if I felt compelled to tap my toes at the start, by the end, I was on my feet and that's something I rarely do.
So it won't surprise you that I'm giving The Collaboration ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
Let me know what you thought, if you've seen it.
The Collaboration, Young Vic
Written by Anthony McCarten
Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah
Running time: 2 hours including an interval.
Booking until 2 April, for details and tickets head to the Young Vic website.
Covid safety: Reminders about mask-wearing before the performance about 70% compliance.
What's on Stage video interview with Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany