Heavens of Invention*** (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Posted: March 3, 2015 in Theatre

Heavens-of-intentionsThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Laurence Olivier and Ian Fleming were born little more than a year apart when King Edward VII was on the throne, they moved in touching circles (Noel Coward, for example was known to both) and, in their different fields, they became British icons of the 20th Century. Mark Burgess’ two one-hour monologues show these figures in their declining years, looking back over their lives. Larry, directed by Daniel Finlay has topical poignancy at a time when Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith have announced that they can no longer cope with the rigours of live theatre. We first see Olivier in 1975, when his last stage appearance at the Old Vic is behind him and the National Theatre is established. He has recovered from two life- threatening illnesses, but is frail, suffers from stage fright and has even dried on the first night of Ibsen’s The Master Builder. He is in New York to shoot Marathon Man, doing battle with Dustin Hoffman over his method acting techniques and learning the skills of dentistry. Keith Drinkel show’s Olivier as a man still filled with insecurities and uncertainties even though he has reached the pinnacle of his profession, playing him as an actor who knows no other way but to go on acting when the tools which he needs are failing him. When we see him again in 1983, he is packing a suitcase full of of old scripts and using it in a lifting exercise to give his arms the strength to carry Cordelia in a television version of King Lear. A professional to the end, he remains adamant that he will not allow her to be supported by strings. The Man with the Golden Pen, directed by Louise Jameson, begins in 1952 at Ian Fleming’s Jamaican home. He is dressing for his wedding and, having just completed his first novel, holding a conversation with its hero, James Bond. From a privileged background, Fleming is a man who has lived a hedonistic lifestyle, ridden his luck and got away with it. Setbacks, such as contracting an unfortunate disease are skimmed over and we hear mostly of a life filled with booze, women and extravagance. However, when only in his 40s, his excesses are already beginning to take a toll on his heath. It emerges that Bond is a cocktail – one part extracted from Fleming’s own life, one part people he has known and several parts wish fulfilment fantasy. Michael Chance plays Fleming as debonair, but regretful that maybe he has let slip some of the more important things in life. When we meet him again, ten years and ten Bond novels later, he has suffered a heart attack, his marriage is in ruins, his fictional hero having become the third person in it, and he resents being sneered at by literary intelligentsia. He expresses reservations over the casting of a rugged Scotsman as Bond in Dr No, but he was not to live to know the phenomenal success of the film franchise that would follow. There is little that is revelatory in these two short plays, most of the anecdotes being well known previously, even to those with only a smattering knowledge about these two men. However, both plays are performed competently and Burgess strikes a good balance between factual detail and humour which always entertains.

Performance date: 2 March 2015

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