King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Neil Cooper

Four stars

“Life,” says iconic film-maker Jack Cardiff in Terry Johnson’s play, “is temporary. Film is forever.” So it is in this loving reimagining of the final days of the cinematographer behind The African Queen, The Red Shoes and a lot more besides. Johnson puts Cardiff in the garage of his Buckinghamshire home, a space lined with portraits of the actresses he lit with such translucent wonder alongside some of the equipment he used to make it happen. Now in the throes of Alzheimer’s, Jack’s son Mason has surrounded his father with totems of his adventures in the screen trade to help nudge out his memoirs. Also on board is his young carer Lucy, while he can’t help but mistake his wife Nicola for Katharine Hepburn.

Out of this comes a gentle elegy for an artist who spent most of his life in make-believe worlds, and who here goes beyond the seeming befuddlement of age to take a peek into a rich imaginative life that keeps him holding on. We don’t just get to see Hepburn, but Marilyn Monroe and her then husband Arthur Miller too. As Cardiff himself observes early on, stepping in to designer Tim Shortall’s elaborately decorated garage that doubles up as a film set is a bit like taking a tour of Cardiff’s mind, where all the studio rushes flicker into bittersweet life.

First seen at Hampstead Theatre and now on tour in co-production with Birmingham Rep, Johnson’s own production flits between fantasy and reality enabled by Ian Galloway’s video design. It draws out fine performances from Tara Fitzgerald as a resigned Nicola, Oliver Hembrough as Mason and Victoria Blunt as Lucy, who first enables Jack to leap down his celluloid rabbit hole. While all three vamp it up beyond their main characters as stars of the silver screen, it is Robert Lindsay as Cardiff who gives the play its heart. Lindsay’s portrayal is a moving one, laced with a knowing wit, intelligence and experience that suggests whatever world Cardiff is in, the light shines on.