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The Theatreguide.London Review

Orson's Shadow
Southwark Playhouse  Summer 2015 

This comedy-drama by American actor/director/playwright Austin Pendleton is a total invention about totally fictional characters named Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Kenneth Tynan and Joan Plowright. And as long as you don't confuse them with the real live persons with the same names, the play will have much to amuse and move you. 

Pendleton's invention is inspired by some events in the lives of the real people, notably that in 1960 the real Welles attempted to direct the real Olivier and Plowright in a production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, only to withdraw or be fired through artistic differences with his star. 

The playwright takes this as the opportunity to explore the psychological and emotional makeup of different sorts of artists. 

His Welles – I have to keep fighting the impulse to put the character names in quotation marks, to underline their fictional nature, whatever they may have in common with the real persons – is a man not quite ready to face the dreadful possibility that he used up all his genius in his earliest works and compulsively taking on project after project to prove that suspicion wrong. 

The play's Olivier, on the other hand, is torn between an ego that demands that every new role be a greater success than the one before, and a small-souled man's inclination to rest on whatever laurels he's accumulated so far. 

Director and actor desperately need each other, just as the other characters desperately need one or both of them, but the clash of different agendas from characters who are themselves internally torn almost guarantees failure all around. 

Pendleton clothes this all in enough backstage gossip and witty bitchery to keep the general tone light, but what you'll carry away from the play are the flashes of darker insight into the lives, professional and personal, of artists. 

For this fine production director Alice Hamilton has wisely guided her cast away from any attempts at easy impersonation, since that would be all we'd be looking at. 

John Hodgkinson's Welles, for example, speaks loudly but without resonance, and isn't even particularly fat, while Edward Bennett lets Tynan's signature stammer, chain-smoking and emphysema appear only when the script mentions them, to disappear instantly when it doesn't. 

Adrian Lukis takes a passing comment that Olivier dresses like a bank manager as the key to a character who would be happiest if his talent didn't keep taking him out of his comfort zone and his personal life didn't keep getting messy. 

Gina Bellman may be playing generic neurotic actress – with minor changes her Leigh could become Garland or Monroe – but she does it very well, sensitively capturing the multilevelled pain of a bipolar woman watching herself spin into mania. 

Tynan, Plowright and a completely fictional rehearsal dogsbody are more plot constructs there largely to fill in exposition than fully realized characters, but Bennett, Louise Ford and Ciaran O'Brien admirably flesh them out. 

The play is full of strong scenes, like Vivien's manic episode or some polite bickering between Welles and Olivier over a single line in the script they're rehearsing that is really a fight to the death over who is the boss here. 

The best is a moving telephone conversation between Olivier and Leigh in which they talk about everything except what they're really talking about, the fact that both know he's leaving her for Plowright. 

And there are also lovely throwaway bits, like a delicate allusion to Rita Hayworth's tragic slide into Alzheimer's or the telling discovery that Olivier can accept Vivien's affair with Peter Finch but is really stung by what a good actor the guy is. 

In a way the play might have been better off with characters named Joe Director, John Actor, Mary Wife and the like. And it is when you take it on that level, rather than trying too hard to find documentary reportage in it, that Orson's Shadow is most entertaining and dramatically satisfying.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Orson's Shadow - Southwark Playhouse 2015  

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