The Invention of Baron Avro Manhattan

Tom Kelly
Laurels Theatre
Laurels Whitley Bay

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Charlotte Wraithe as Katherine
Jonathan Cash as the Baron

Given the title of Tom Kelly’s new play and the larger than life portrayal of its eponymous hero (?) I googled Baron Avro Manhattan before writing this review.

I needed to know—did he exist?

Kelly could be having a joke at our expense. Baron Avro Manhattan could well be a figment of the playwright’s creative imagination. How could this larger-than-life author, painter, friend of such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, Picasso, lover of Marie Stopes , fantasist and author of countless books lambasting the Catholic Church, a man once forced to flee from Russian spies, have settled for thirty years in—erm—little old South Shields? And how come I’d never heard of him?

Top marks to Kelly then for unearthing the Baron, who died in 1990 after a highly colourful life—much of it made up by himself.

The play’s structure is an interview with the Baron (Jonathan Cash) by a freelance journalist Catherine (Charlotte Wraithe) who slowly untangles fact from fiction as she painstakingly takes him through his life, exposing countless untruths as she goes.

None of which seems to bother the imperious Baron himself. He is seemingly oblivious to the demolition job, remaining vain, self-centered and fascinating to the end. He did after all write countless books and produce an impressive body of paintings and such authors as H G Wells sang his praises so he was always more than a conman.

Though he was extraordinarily focussed purely on himself.

Charlotte Wraithe also pops in and out of various other minor roles as we rattle through an encyclopaedic amount of information about the man and there were times I longed for the play to slow down and allow some incidents dramatically to breathe.

It’s directed by Jamie Eastlake who also built the set. The piece incorporates some back projection which never quite works and also includes a dog. Not sure we need the dog.

Tom Kelly is South Tyneside’s leading playwright, also a poet and short story writer whose work often distils the borough’s recent history. Often this is inspired by his own life, background and family. The Baron offers a new challenge; this is a life with a wide geographic view, hopping around the world and taking in characters such as Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev.

Cash has the easier task in his role of the picaresque Baron who is a naturally colourful and flawed character. Against this, Charlotte Wraithe’s researcher has doggedly to stick to her guns in peeling back the truth.

Kelly uses some small revelatory devices to remind us of the Baron’s deception. The researcher leaves the room for a moment as the phone rings. The Baron answers and says, "sorry, you’ve got the wrong number."

When Katherine returns, he announces, "that was my publisher, wanting me to finish my two latest books."

Against which, there were a good many books and the Baron did do a great deal of research on the shortcomings of the Catholic Church. You could argue this was the forerunner of many of the scandals which followed about that once hallowed institution.

A man well worth unearthing then. And a welcome curio of a theatre piece.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer

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