Martin Sherman, based on material from the book Nemesis by Peter Evans
Derby LIVE in association with Chichester Festival Theatre
Derby Theatre

Onassis production photo

Only three productions are believed to have gone from Derby straight into the West End: a version of Chekhov's The Seagull starring Derby actor Alan Bates in 1976; former Playhouse artistic director Mark Clements' musical Soul Train which started off with the title Grapevine in the city in 1999; and now Onassis.

Much of the expectation surrounding Martin Sherman's portrayal of the billionaire shipping magnate Aristotle Socrates Onassis has centred on the appearance of Derbyshire actor Robert Lindsay in the title role. This has ensured that many of the shows in the play's run of just over two weeks at Derby Theatre are already fully booked.

Few if any people will be disappointed. Lindsay, who's making his first professional appearance on a Derby stage, gives a captivating performance.

Onassis lived in a world in which money, power and influence ruled; those who had them didn't conform to the same ethical or moral standards as the rest of civilisation.

He was capable of shaping world events and is thought to have had a hand in the assassination of Bobby Kennedy by putting up the money which went to a professional hitman.

Onassis was a selfish, ruthless, promiscuous, bad-tempered, foul-mouthed liar - yet somehow Lindsay makes him likeable.

Despite his faults, Onassis could be affected by tragedy; Lindsay earns sympathy for his reaction at the death of Onassis' son, demonstrating the totality of his loss and the difficulty he has in letting out his grief.

Lindsay is completely immersed in the role, revelling in the pure delight of playing such a multi-faceted character and looking like a true native of Greece.

That can be said of the rest of the cast whose body language, mannerisms, singing and dancing conjure up a traditional Greek atmosphere throughout.

Although Lindsay's is the dominant role, there are several exceptional performances.

Gawn Grainger as Onassis' confidante Costa, who occasionally assumes the role of narrator, has the unenviable job of unravelling the complicated relationships between Onassis and his relatives, the American Kennedy dynasty and other characters who are interlinked through their many affairs. Grainger succeeds superbly with a quaint, modest charm.

Lydia Leonard has the difficult job of showing that Jacqueline Kennedy is more than a "walking credit card"; she manages to maintain the style, glamour and class of the former First Lady despite the philandering of her second husband, Onassis.

Anna Francolini has a secondary but meatier role as opera singer Maria Callas; she admirably demonstrates that her affair with Onassis destroyed her life as well as her career.

There's not a weak link in the cast, with Sue Kelvin (Dimitra), Liz Crowther (Eleni), Robert Hastie (Theo), John Hodgkinson (Yanni) and Tom Austen (Alexandro) all making valuable contributions, as do musicians Ben Grove and Graeme Taylor.

Nancy Meckler's solid direction and Katrina Lindsay's amazingly atmospheric, effective set add to the enjoyment of the show which boasts quality and elegance throughout.

Onassis is arguably the finest production to have originated in Derby in the past thirty years. Those who've secured a ticket during the rest of its run in the city and audiences who'll see it when it transfers to the Novello are in for a treat.

"Onassis" runs at Derby Theatre until September 25th

Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its transfer to the Novello Theatre

Reviewer: Steve Orme

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