There is no doubt in my mind that Robert Allan Ackerman’s production of Burn This by Lanford Wilson would have been one of those life changing theatrical visits without the build-up. However, that build-up has kept it high in the memory for three decades.
For the uninitiated, this play had the kind of hype that is rarely seen in connection with the London stage, other than when Nicole Kidman decides to disrobe in semi-darkness.
The major attraction was the appearance of John Malkovich, not in the West End (which would come later in the year at the Lyric) but in the Portakabin that housed Hampstead Theatre for so many years.
As a result, the whole run must have been sold out long before it opened and the chances of getting a return were, at best, negligible.
However, using what would subsequently become a tried and tested strategy, I decided to spend a fair chunk of the early evening of what was apparently 4 July 1990, enjoying some intellectually stimulating theatre chatter with other theatre aficionados desperate to pick up tickets.
The reason that I have been able to discover the date is down to a sporting event. England were playing West Germany in the semi-final of the World Cup (in those days we didn’t need to affirm that it was men’s and football) at a stadium in Turin.
As a result, there seemed to be a unique opening to discover tickets handed back by trendy Hampstead types happy to sacrifice a chance to see Malkovich at his best in exchange for an evening in front of the TV following the lads as they marched triumphantly towards World Cup glory. That backfired for them!
With a smaller than predicted returns queue, the odds seem reasonably favourable, although tension certainly built until the point at which tickets were dispensed to my newly found friends at the front of the queue and, much to his delight, yours truly.
What followed was the theatrical equivalent of watching England win the football World Cup, not that very many readers will be able to remember or even conceive what that might be like.
All of 30 years later, I can still picture John Malkovich storming across the stage in the intimate space, terrifying not only Juliet Stevenson, Michael Simkins and American import from the original production Lou Libertore but also those of us who felt as if they were on the periphery of the cramped New York apartment where so much of the action took place.
In particular, one argument between Pale, the character played by Malkovich, and Miss Stevenson as his prospective new conquest Anna still remains fresh in the memory, such was its violent passion and realism.
Indeed, the whole play was like a knockout punch that unerringly catches the point of every viewer’s jaw.
Strangely, reminders of this wonderful occasion are almost everywhere today, since three of the finest actors around, John Malkovich, Juliet Stevenson and Michael Simkins, have all appeared on the London stage to great acclaim in the last year.
While Burn This has been revived a number of times in the States since the original 1987 off-Broadway production, which later transferred onto the Great White Way, most recently last year, for some unknown reason it has never returned to London.
In the current indefinite interregnum, we can only hope that a producer with nothing better to do seizes the opportunity to stage a star vehicle like few others some time in 2021.