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Prism starring Robert Lindsay – review at Hampstead Theatre, London – ‘lyrical’

Rebecca Night and Robert Lindsay in Prism at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Rebecca Night and Robert Lindsay in Prism at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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British cinematographer Jack Cardiff was one of the fathers of modern colour filmmaking. Terry Johnson’s new play, Prism, uses his dementia-stricken final years to bring Cardiff’s love of his craft into the light.

The setting is a garage of mementoes and photos of the female Hollywood icons Cardiff (Robert Lindsay) immortalised on screen. While son Mason (Barnaby Kay) hopes that carer Lucy (Rebecca Night) will help him finish his autobiography, wife Nicola (Claire Skinner) loses hope that, when Cardiff looks at her, he will ever see her – and not ‘Katie’ Hepburn – again.

Prism is beautifully lyrical at times, drawing parallels between Cardiff and the dust-covered camera in his garage: both are broken, but both have achieved extraordinary things. There’s a bitter tragedy in the failing eyesight of a man who saw so vividly, with a painterly talent for capturing light and colour. But the production also drifts, floating between the present day and Cardiff’s blurring memories of filming The African Queen.

This is Johnson’s first full length play for several years and, while elegantly staged and lit, it feels stretched at two hours. It’s a collection of lovely moments that don’t quite snap into focus as a whole.

One reason Prism exists feels like as a showcase for Lindsay, who first suggested Cardiff as a subject to Johnson. Skinner is moving as Nicola and impressive as Hepburn. Kay and Night flesh out some meagre bones. But they are all refracted through Lindsay’s irascible, increasingly bewildered Cardiff. He gets the best lines – and makes them sparkle.

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A poetic but meandering look at the life of one film’s great cinematographers