Imagine only knowing George Best's footballing skills through his mid-1970s comeback; many of Nicol Williamson's audience will be in an analogous position. The pre-publicity for his return to the West End after a decade and a half has familiarised us with his achievements in the 1960s - startling performances in Inadmissible Evidence and Events During The Guarding Of The Bofors Gun and the definitive Hamlet of his generation - but since his relocation to America our only sightings of him have been on the screen, as Mountbatten the Last Viceroy or a gloriously idiosyncratic Merlin in John Boorman's Excalibur.
Williamson now seems intent on proving that his control and precision are unabated. Paradoxically, he has chosen to do so in a one-man show about the erratic, alcoholic John Barrymore, whose career spanned vaudeville, Shakespeare and matinee idoldom before declining into pathetic self-parody. He has been at pains to deny any alleged parallels, but as with most solo presentations it is impossible to watch Jack without a keen consciousness of the performer.
This was heightened on the press night by Williamson's evident nervousness; it is difficult to ascribe many of the fluffs and uncertainties to the portrayal of a figure whose skills have been shot by booze – not even on the stammered line, "My m— uh, my memory's not a problem." For much of the first act he seemed simply to be hitting his spots and delivering lines in the requisite moods, but a combination of restraint and timidity prevented him from inhabiting his character. The first hints of a native ebullience came with the unambiguously broad parody of the voice teacher to whom Barrymore resorted to train for the parts of Richard III and Hamlet - culminating in the sight of a theatrical legend (Williamson or Barrymore, take your pick) in vest and tights singing "The Laughing Policceman".
Screen director Leslie Megahey (making his stage directorial debut) and Williamson have devised a show which engages and endears, despite lapsing into purple orotundity during the self-pitying passages about Barrymore's terminal alcoholism. They are alive to the mileage in self-referential chuckles without falling into solipsism: knowing the story of Williamson's last New York appearance, we're allowed a snigger when Barrymore speaks of only occasionally giving his Laertes a flesh-wound in the duelling scene of Hamlet (and the line "What kind of asshole does it take to write My Life In The Theatre at 28?" can't have been lost on one of the trustees of Criterion Productions plc, a Mr Branagh).
The actor lives up to his description of his own talents - "I can understand people's pain, passion, fear, hurt, and I can mirror it and set it up for them to look at"; he can work wonders with a moment of silent reflection or (scripted) hesitation - but always seems to be reining himself in. Crucially, he fails to convey possibly the most essential element of Barrymore's charisma, his sexual magnetism. For all Barrymore's talk of his four matrimonial "bus accidents" and romantic excesses, Williamson simply does not smoulder sufficiently.
Both he and Jack will be feted, and rightly so; for all these reservations, it's damned good to have back an actor individual enough to divide his programme biography into performances on stage, on screen and "for the American Presidency" and who uses his curtain speech to invite the audience to listen to him perform a jazz set in the bar after the show. However, those of us who missed his early glories will have to take up the Nicol Williamson story, without preconceptions, from here.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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