Laurence Olivier & Vivien Leigh: The Final Curtain
Given that they were the two most famous actors of their day, it seems amazing that someone can find a new angle to justify publishing yet another book about Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. David Barry, still best known as Frankie Abbott from TV sitcom Please Sir, has done just that.
In 1957, the callow, 4’8” tall 14-year-old, still using his birth name of Meurig Wyn-Jones, spent three months touring Europe playing the role of Young Lucius in Peter Brook’s RSC production of Titus Andronicus, the last play in which the two stars acted together.
It is sad to record that this critic started reading the book on the day that the legendary Peter Brook’s death was announced at the age of 97. As such, it became both a reminder and an epitaph to a unique career.
To cap off a relatively unexceptional childhood, young Jones, as he was at the time, transferred from the local secondary modern to a stage school where he trained with the likes of Richard O’Sullivan, Carol White and Francesca Annis.
Impressively, while his parents could not afford the school’s fees, the principal recognised the star in the making and her confidence paid off, since the pupil’s fees for acting work more than made up the difference.
The book opens on the day that the starstruck new recruit, understandably tongue-tied on his first encounter with Scarlett O’Hara, joined the Titus company, replacing an incumbent from the Stratford production whose voice inconveniently broke just before a glamorous and exciting European tour. The rest, as they say, is history but strangely given the fame of the stars, relatively uncharted history.
While a company encompassing Peter Brook, Laurence Olivier (fresh from an unlikely success in John Osborne’s The Entertainer) and Vivien Leigh should be a big enough draw on its own, it is worth noting that support came from Anthony Quayle (in the days when leading actors of their generation still blacked up to play Moors) and Maxine Audley. Several of the “spear carriers” could also look forward to a glittering future including Ian Holm, Michael Blakemore and John Standing.
The dream tour started in Paris where the curtain calls apparently lasted as long as half an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour. From there, it moved on to Venice and then behind the Iron Curtain at a time when the Cold War was raging.
This tour was clearly both culturally and politically significant, since in Belgrade, the celebrities who met the cast included not only Marshall Tito but, rather bizarrely, Clement Attlee, while in Vienna, the crew were invited to a formal function by Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador.
Sadly, all was not sweetness and light, particularly since the brittle Vivien Leigh was constantly on the brink of a nervous breakdown, drinking in the wings while waiting to go on stage. This inevitably put stress onto her husband, not to mention the rest of the company.
The tour ended with a run in London at the now defunct Stoll Theatre, broken by a visit to the Oliviers’ country pile at Notley Abbey, after which Meurig Wyn-Jones had to descend from heaven and return to school, before embarking on a busy acting career.
He was left with many mementos, including photos that adorn the book, the most memorable of which shows him in the vanguard as hundreds of theatre folk marched in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save the St James Theatre.
Laurence Olivier & Vivien Leigh: The Final Curtain is great fun, mixing unintrusive autobiography and social history with theatre technique and lore, not to mention lashings of juicy gossip from someone who was not so much “in the room” as “on the stage” with some genuine greats.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher