It takes a brave writer to interrupt his play just a few minutes in and tell the audience exactly what is wrong with it. Using the legendary theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (Edward Bennett) as a mouthpiece, Austin Pendleton chastises himself for writing stilted dialogue which serves no purpose other than to bombard the audience with facts. He is spot on. Thereafter, Pendleton carries on regardless, firing at us a myriad of details relating to the careers of his four thespian protagonists – Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Joan Plowright. It seems that Pendleton is determined that no production, no date and no person that any of the four has worked with should be left unmentioned. The result is a play that often comes close to buckling under the weight of too much information. Yes, of course younger audiences may not be too familiar with these characters, but surely it is not necessary to relate near-complete life histories for anyone to get what the play is all about – actors with inflated egos, living their lives removed from reality. In 1960, Tynan acted as go-between to bring together Welles as director and Olivier as star for a production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Royal Court Theatre in London. There is very little sparkle in a first half recounting separate discussions which Tynan had firstly with Welles and then with Olivier, but the play ignites at the start of the second Act, when the two giants collide and rehearsals begin. Fretting over what to do with his hands during a scene, Larry seeks Orson’s advice and is told to do some dusting; “how do I do that?” Larry enquires, to which Orson replies: “How the Hell would I know?!” Delicious mischief such as this could fill an evening. Well padded (we presume), John Hodgkinson is an imposing Orson, with a booming voice and the arrogant air of a genius trying to escape from the shadow of his masterpiece Citizen Kane. Incapable of understanding why Hollywood studios refuse to back his latest art house venture, his reason for being here is to persuade the new National Theatre under Olivier and Tynan to provide finance. Adrian Lukis gives us a comic caricature of Larry, showing him to be a neurotic ditherer with deep inner doubts, but not projecting his charisma and outward authority. Pendleton leaves Joan as something of a blank, perhaps respecting the fact that the lady is, happily, still amongst us and gives Louise Ford little to work on. However, he goes to town with Vivien and Gina Bellman tears into the role. This is a real-life cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois, shamelessly seducing Orson’s young assistant Sean (Ciaran O’Brien) whilst stricken with tuberculosis and manic depression. She knows that her marriage to Larry is over but refuses to face up to the fact and Bellman makes us believe that this really is a woman who would fit in sessions of electric shock treatment between nightly starring appearances on Broadway. When director Alice Hamilton’s in-the-round production is good, it is very good, but, after all the fireworks of the second Act, Pendleton returns to earlier form with a needless recital of what happened to everyone after the play ended. If only he could have focussed solely on the juicy drama and not tried to give us a lesson in theatre and film history, his play could have been a classic.
Performance date: 6 July 2015