Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Orson's Shadow

Austin Pendleton
Emily Dobbs Productions
Southwark Playhouse

Gina Bellman (Vivien Leigh) and John Hodgkinson (Orson Welles) Credit: Simon Annand
Edward Bennett (Kenneth Tynan) Credit: Simon Annand
Adrian Lukis (Laurence Olivier) Gina Bellman (Vivien Leigh) Credit: Simon Annand

Having started life at Steppenwolf in Chicago, Orson's Shadow has taken 15 years to reach our shores, which is surprising given the very British nature of its characters and subject matter.

In the interim, it enjoyed a long run of almost 350 performances Off-Broadway at Barrow Street Theatre, under the direction of David Cromer, best known here for Our Town.

It helps that with the Steppenwolf connections of Austin Pendleton, popular playwright/screenwriter, Tracy (Killer Joe / August Osage County) Letts was persuaded to join the original New York cast taking the role of Ken Tynan.

This is a play that wallows in theatricality and cleverness, at times too much for its own good. For 2¼ hours, it allows viewers to witness colliding egos, using heightened language and emotion to look into the souls of some of the greats of stage and screen half a century ago.

The prologue comes from Edward Bennett playing Tynan, arguably the most naturally gifted of all theatre critics but already afflicted with the emphysema that will eventually kill him.

His initial skirmishes come with the mountainous John Hodgkinson's Orson Welles, forgotten after too many Hollywood battles and reduced to launching his Falstaff play, Chimes at Midnight, to meagre audiences in Dublin.

Together they concoct an unlikely plan to re-model their careers through the launchpad of Laurence Olivier, prissily played by Adrian Lukis.

The excessively irritating future Lord is also at more than one crossroads. First, as Angry Young Men begin to dominate his trade, the theatrical legend starts to doubt and seek more avant garde avenues for his skills.

Secondly, he has become entranced by the fresh-faced Louise Ford as a very sweet Joan Plowright. The feelings are reciprocated but merely cause an explosive problem in the form of his current wife, Gina Bellman's brittle but beautiful Vivien Leigh, who is suffering from "mania", i.e. cracking up.

In-the-round, Pendleton and his young British director Alice Hamilton, manipulate these characters in their increasingly tempestuous dealings. Unlike the rather surreal New York production, the director plays the script pretty much straight.

The first half can be seen as enjoying a kind of Shakespearean rhythm, while after the interval as things become manic, it takes on more of the character of Ionesco, whose Rhinoceros is being rehearsed, while all hell seems in danger of breaking loose in the rehearsal room with those egos swiftly building the tensions to boiling point.

Somehow, the resolutions fail to satisfy and the characterisations can be too stagey, which may just be an accurate reflection of a stage packed with self-regarding prima donnas.

However, much of the pastiche is rather fun and those in thrall to any of the main figures will be on the edges of their seats, happily enjoying their eccentric behaviour and interactions.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher