Director: Joe Dowling
Writer: David Joss Buckley
Original novel: Tracy Chevalier
Details: Theatre Royal Haymarket, Haymarket, SW1Y 4HT
Tube: Piccadilly Circus
Performances: Mon-Sat 7.30 pm, Matinees Wed and Sat 2.30 pm (until 1 November 2008)
Running time: 2h10
In short: With a part of her lips and a turn of her head, a wide-eyed Dutch servant inspires Vermeer's best known painting and turns a Catholic household upside-down.
In full: An expectant young girl painted on crackled canvas - the 'Mona Lisa of the North' - and the speculated relationship between its painter and his muse has fuelled a bestselling novel, a BAFTA-nominated film and now, a West End play.
The stage version of Girl with a Pearl Earring might lack the subtle smouldering and moments of shame that Tracy Chevalier's original story captured, but it compensates for scenes of spell-it-out longing with a strong supporting cast and an inventive setup.
When Griet, a Delft-born Protestant not yet 18, advances from cutting carrots to assisting Johannes Vermeer in his notoriously private studio, the baroque artist's wife and daughter fear their family might crumble. They only had hired the girl as a favour when her tile-painter father went blind. But Griet (Kimberley Nixon following Scarlett Johansson's movie role) speeds Vermeer's work, and with money dwindling, the family needs paintings to sell quickly to slimy patron van Ruijven.
Griet's single-minded devotion to Vermeer (Adrian Dunbar of Boeing Boeing) pushes the limits of her virtue just as it leaves the painter ambiguous about the direction of his affections. Emboldened by red wine and social status, van Ruijven acts as entitled to the girl's untouched beauty as he does his next work of art.
Most of Chevalier's major plot points remain, but stage writer David Joss Buckley (EastEnders, A Mind to Kill) turns an engagingly tormented relationship into a standard potential cheat. Where Johansson's timid and reflective Griet is sympathetic as a young girl discovering temptation, Nixon's portrayal is loud and brash (and that's nothing compared to the theatre-filling screams after getting a single ear pierced). Johansson and the film Vermeer, Colin Firth, build unspoken tension, which didn't translate to the theatre.
The production otherwise is thoroughly decent. Olivier-winning Sara Kestelman is cool and calculating as Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, and the seasoned Niall Buggy injects comedy into an otherwise creepy art addict. A revolving stage is a bold setup for a production scheduled for just a six-week run, but it remedies obviousness of plot with an attractive flash of scenery.
- Jill Hilbrenner
- 'The whole point of the book is the unselfconscious artistry of the first-person narrative in describing Griet's sensual and artistic awakening. Here, the theatre can only scratch the surface.' Michael Coveney, The Independent
- 'Like a Dutch interior, Chevalier's book is full of delicate shades and half-tones. It plays with a host of ideas - the egotism of genius, the corruption of innocence. But what is implicit becomes hopelessly explicit in Buckley's version, as characters explain their urges.' Michael Billington, The Guardian