A thousand miles of history

**** The Times

I’m not a real person, I’m a legend!” screams the young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in pain and pride. He begs his New York gallery mistress not to tell his father that he is a junkie. His friend Keith Haring, meanwhile, junks his faithful first love, and his idealism, to return to the gay bath house scene and take the art world for all it’s got, designing Swatches and custom BMWs because art “is not a profession, it’s a racket”.

Harold Finley’s new play follows the short careers of Basquiat and Haring in the Eighties, and their friendship with Andy Warhol. It strikes a fine balance between portraying horror at the way in which they were exploited and real respect for their work (projected on a back wall are Haring’s “radiant baby” themes and Basquiat’s graffiti collages.) Michael Palmer, as the critic René Ricard, catches the malignly knowing, camp drawl of the art world’s fellow travellers, explaining that New York was bored with minimalism and ready to fall in love with the exuberant aerosol graffiti of urban rebels. Seduced by big money and 15-minute fame, they fall deeper into drugs (Basquiat) and promiscuity (Haring). Which doesn’t bother the icy gallerista, Mary Boone: a dealer’s job is to “encourage them to get into debt ... Jean-Michel is a ready-made art star with a ready-made drug habit”.

Sometimes too slowly, but with remarkable compassion, Finley recreates a time and a place that still casts a long shadow, prefiguring the Banksy craze and Britart boom. Michael Walters as Basquiat is a newcomer to watch — a troubled Peter Pan, skinny and intense beneath the wild, tangled dreadlocks and, finally, at 28, a dying addict. He’s terrific, and so are Simon Ginty as Haring and Lisa Caruccio Came as Boone.

As for Warhol, he’s a treat: Adam Riches sashays around beneath the white wig, a portrait of preening vanity. But even he is given a shimmer of pathos, accepting that he is nothing but an entertainer who got lucky. There are troubling layers here: the world it half celebrates may have been meretricious, but the play itself is better than that.

The story of how legendary graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat launched a fine art career.


Harold Finley


Bussey Building, Peckham


Adam Riches
Michael Walters
Simon Ginty
Joseph Mydell
Lisa Caruccio Came
Miles Mitchell
James Kermack
Emanuel Imani