Apollo Theatre, London W1
Opened 11 October, 2010
Clifford Odets’ 1950 play seems to encourage connections and revisitations. The stars of its 1954 film version, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, later reunited for High Society; this revival brings together the leads from television series Judge John Deed, Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove, on stage for the first time; Shaw and producer Bill Kenwright, moreover, are returning to the very theatre where the play gave Kenwright his first West End success. In 1983 Shaw played young Broadway director in a hurry Bernie Dodd, keen to become known as the man who salvaged the career of faded, alcoholic actor Frank Elgin; in 2010 Shaw plays Frank to Mark Letheren’s Bernie, with Seagrove as Elgin’s wife Georgie. Frank describes her as a suicidal neurotic whose demands on his attention have kept him away from the stage for years, but as rehearsals and then the out-of-town previews progress it becomes apparent that the reality is very different.

Shaw radiates an intense commitment as a stage actor. The play is partly about those acting techniques – improvisation, emotional memory – at that time gaining prominence as “the Method”, but when we see Frank as a confused, even scared actor suddenly discovering the power of letting himself explode out through the role, it feels as if Shaw is to some extent letting go too. The more conflicted and desperate Frank becomes, the wilder the switchbacks Shaw displays between the jocular public face and the muttering private wreck-in-the-offing. Seagrove, in contrast, often seems a tightly buttoned actor; on this occasion such an approach suits the quiet determination of Georgie. Bernie is less a rounded person than a collection of narrative requirements: drive the production, drive a wedge between the Elgins, drive himself into a deep hole by misjudging the situation. Under Rufus Norris’s able direction, Letheren nonetheless finds a coherent characterisation, which reaches full flower when he realises how the truth of the alcoholic is almost the opposite of what he had believed and how great an injustice he has done to the one person keeping the human ruin in something approaching one piece. Norris extends the theatrical atmosphere to the point of conducting the scene changes of Scott Pask’s period-backstage set as if they pertained to the fictitious production. Kenwright is unlikely to take a financial soaking second time around either.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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