Woman Before a Glass review – the art and heartache of Peggy Guggenheim

Jermyn Street theatre, London
Lanie Robertson’s one-woman play mines the American heiress and art collector’s turbulent life for gossip

Played with vigour … Judy Rosenblatt in Woman Before a Glass at Jermyn Street theatre, London.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The American heiress Peggy Guggenheim called the works in her art collection “my children” and she was devoted to them. Her own children drifted away from her. She barely saw her son, but spent time with her Kandinskys and Pollocks.

Her daughter, Pegeen Vail, a talented painter, died of an overdose in 1967, aged 41. There were other losses, too. The only man Guggenheim claimed to really love, apart from her father, was the critic John Ferrar Holms, who died suddenly in 1934. Maybe she loved only them because these two men loved every part of her, including her famously large nose, which she detested.

Her beloved sister Benita died in childbirth, and her father went down with the Titanic. One of the best moments in Lanie Robertson’s rambling one-woman play about Guggenheim is when the collector – played with vigour by Judy Rosenblatt – recalls her 13-year-old self, waiting on an eerily quiet quayside in New York as the Carpathia, carrying Titanic survivors, docked. The silence was suddenly cut with wails of grief as passengers disembarked, and their last shreds of hope were destroyed.

Maybe these brushes with death made her respond to her one-time lover Samuel Beckett’s idea that she should collect contemporary art because it was so vividly alive. It was a sacrifice: she had to limit her clothes budget to $100,000 a year. She moans that she came from the poor branch of Guggenheims: millionaires not billionaires.

In some ways, this is a play about loss and a woman drowning in loneliness towards the end of her life, as she cunningly plays art galleries off against each other. Like so many one-person shows, Robertson never solves the problem of why this character is confiding in us, and she mines Guggenheim’s life for gossip rather than meaning. The result is mostly entertaining, but never offers more than a superficial portrait of a complex woman.

At Jermyn Street theatre, London, until 3 February. Box office: 020-7287 2875.

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