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Onassis

Martin Sherman
Derby LIVE in association with Chichester Festival Theatre
Novello Theatre
(2010)

Onassis production photo

Martin Sherman's controversial bio-play about Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis has received an unusual makeover in the two years since its debut in Chichester.

At that time, it was known by its character's abbreviated Christian name "Aristo". Now the show has been re-named as the more marketable "Onassis". The drama has also lost some hour from the original playing time, almost certainly to its benefit.

While Robert Lindsay still plays the flawed tragic hero, Elizabeth McGovern and Diana Quick have given way to Lydia Leonard and Anna Francolini as the two leading ladies in his life, Jackie O as she came to be known and Maria Callas.

Shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis was in some ways a kind of 1960s version of Roman Abramovich, one of the world's richest men and a mover and shaker par excellence.

So charming and influential was this pleasure-seeking multimillionaire (or his money) that he managed to marry the widow of US president John F Kennedy and had an affair with the world's most famous opera singer (amongst so many others).

In fact, if this semi-thriller, based by Martin Sherman on the book Nemesis by Peter Evans, is to be believed, Onassis was a walking soap opera and a constant magnet for both tragedy and farce.

After literally creating a spider's web map of sexual intrigue involving numerous Greeks and Irish-Catholic Americans, the play opens in 1963 as the 60-year-old meets Jackie Kennedy, sister of his latest mistress. In no time, the couple are flirting and then betraying their respective spouses.

This doesn't impress first wife and the source of his wealth Tina, current fling Miss Callas or prim son Alexandro. However, as long as he could get his own way, egotistical Aristo was not one to care about anyone else, even his own flesh and blood.

The creators spice up the drama with a Kennedy conspiracy theory to add to the thousands already in existence, suggesting a new mastermind behind the assassination of Jackie's brother-in-law/lover, Bobby. Links with the PLO and CIA also intervene before the 2¼ hours expire.

Life with spendthrift Jackie O is soon problematic and death just keeps knocking on the door of a man who can buy anything but life, until eventually he too succumbs to close the evening.

Onassis is a strange concoction of Greek tragedy complete with songs and chorus, wordy novel, celeb exposé and political thriller.

Like the ancients, the action is all reported, which can lead to long passages of exposition, often from Gawn Grainger playing the great man's henchman.

The best scenes tend to be those involving human interaction, either with Jackie or Alex, when the monstrous behaviour of a larger than life hedonist who loves only himself can be seen to the full.

Sadly, Maria Callas plays only a minor cameo as a shrill, temperamental operatic heroine who can do little but tediously bewail her lot.

Whether there is an audience for the salacious story of a rich man long dead only the box office will tell. With the highly popular Robert Lindsay to front things, there might just be.

Steve Orme reviewed this production at the Derby Theatre

Reviewer: Philip Fisher