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Review of Orson’s Shadow at Southwark Playhouse

Orson's Shadow Adrian Lukis (Laurence Olivier) John Hodgkinson (Orson Welles) Gina Bellman (Vivien Leigh)
Orson’s Shadow Adrian Lukis (Laurence Olivier) John Hodgkinson (Orson Welles) Gina Bellman (Vivien Leigh) Photo Simon Annand

Orson’s Shadow: A big shadow it was too, and not only when it was being cast over his fellow actors in such classic movies as Citizen Kane and The Third Man. In the prime of his immense career Welles appeared larger than life, offscreen as well as on. But then so too did his English contemporary Sir Laurence Olivier, so the notion of a head-to-head between these two Titans seemed like a good idea to the American author Austin Pendleton, who – crucially for such a project – had been an actor and director before he was a dramatist.

It did actually happen, this professional encounter between the two men, although both might have been glad to forget the circumstances in which it took place. In 1960 Welles was in London to direct Olivier in an ill-starred production of Rhinoceros at the Royal Court. Followers of Sir Larry – which was virtually the whole of England at that time – were acutely aware of his battles, not only against the advancing years which were having the nerve to dull his youthful beauty, but also against the fading dominion of great classical acting.

Add to this the fairly public spectacle of his fatally ailing marriage with the sad, unstable Vivien Leigh and the ascent of his new love and co-star Joan Plowright, and you have as much drama as most theatre buffs could crave. Pendleton senses the need for yet more, to which end he offers us the engagingly waspish figure of Ken Tynan, the theatre critic who was later to become, at Olivier’s emerging National Theatre, the most famous, if not notorious literary manager in English theatrical history. In Pendleton’s version Tynan becomes a sort of A List show-pimp, penning the two scared monsters together while feathering his own strange, barbed nest.

With such a parcel of personalities onboard, stage directions, let alone instruction, might seem superfluous; best just to let them get on with it, brandish their brittle self-loves at each other, fret narcissistically about posterity and generally flaunt their trademark tricks. Who could complain, and what grounds? Well, them for a start, and on the grounds they are being insufficiently respected.

As a result Pendleton’s play is the most peculiar melange of passion and emptiness, both visited in the quest for personal fulfillment, public immortality and, yes, art. When it takes wing, as it does with Larry’s marital dramas, it seems to be speaking, or rather howling the blues about the impossibility of such people enacting a high love which has not been pre-scripted. In its more grounded moments it appears almost to despair of the chances of these illustrious ego-slaves ever taking anything forward.

Best of a good bunch is Edward Bennett’s Tynan, so relishing his command over the monologue that he can’t wait for these actor people to shut up. Also compelling is John Hodgkinson’s Orson, a vast audience of a creature also barely able to wait for his own next killer line. As for Adrian Lukis’s Olivier, the problem lies with Larry rather than his portrayer, who does him all too accurately and so tires the ear with his fluting vanity. Touching self-suppression (what else could the poor girl do?) from Louise Ford’s Joan Plowright, and moving intimations of mental darkness from Gina Bellman’s inevitably under-developed Vivien Leigh.

Was it like this when they were all together fifty-years ago? Almost certainly not, but who cares? Just don’t think you’re going to a documentary. It’s theatre, love.
3 Star Review

Review by Alan Franks

Emily Dobbs Productions and Smith & Brant Theatricals present the European premiere of Orson’s Shadow by Austin Pendleton
1st – 25th July 2015
7.30pm Matinee 3.00pm
Running Time 135 minutes including interval

Creative Team
Director – Alice Hamilton
Set and Costume Designer – Max Dorey
Lighting Designer – Nicholas Holdridge
Sound Designer – Giles Thomas
Production Manager – Pip Robinson
Casting Director – Ruth O’Dowd
Costume Supervisor – Natalie Pryce
Assistant Director – Rupert Hands
Producers – Emily Dobbs Productions and Robyn Keynes for Smith & Brant Theatricals

Vivien Leigh – Gina Bellman
Kenneth Tynan – Edward Bennett
Joan Plowright – Louise Ford
Orson Welles – John Hodgkinson
Laurence Olivier – Adrian Lukis
Sean – Ciaran O’Brien

Tuesday 7th July 2015


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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