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Richard Jordan: There’s a big difference between good acting and great acting

A scene from the RSC's Oppenheimer. Photo: Tristram Kenton John Heffernan in the RSC's Oppenheimer. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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It takes something special to make a show truly memorable. You can tell at the time – there’s a spine-tingling, gripping and unforgettable moment when the hairs literally stand up on the back of your neck.

For regular theatregoers, expectations increase the more work you see, but you also identify the difference between a merely good actor and the truly great one. That is one of the reasons why watching live theatre is vital for anyone pursuing a career in acting. Drama training can teach about technique and craft, but the greatest lessons are learned while sitting in an auditorium observing these skills successfully at work.

There have recently been two great examples of this happening on opposite sides of the same London street:John Heffernan’s captivating performance as the titular character in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s limited season of Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer at the Vaudeville Theatre and Imelda Staunton’s unmissable turn as Mama Rose in Gypsy, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s iconic musical, which continues its run at the Savoy Theatre.

You might not think these two productions have much in common. One is a Broadway musical about a pushy, stage-struck mother; the other, a play about the inventor of the atomic bomb. However, both present a central and complex leading character who is ruthless and focused in his or her quest for success, pushing out those unfortunate enough to get in their way and with little thought for the consequences of their actions until it’s too late.

It’s therefore testament to both Staunton and Heffernan’s performances that they can create empathy for their characters, that as an audience we invest wholeheartedly in them and perhaps – terrifyingly – even catch ourselves willing their success.

It’s the result of strong writing delivered through great acting

That is a result of strong writing delivered through great acting and in both these productions the audience is given a masterclass. When you see great actors at work, you realise it is in the little touches they instinctively find in their own technique which grounds their performances, thus propelling them forward to another level, becoming both visceral and memorable.

In any such instance you also understand what is meant by the expression ‘living the performance’.

For Staunton’s Mama Rose, that extra brushstroke of character is all about the hands and none more so than at the end of her Act I number, Everything’s Coming Up Roses, when she applauds herself with such vigour it feels psychotic, utterly chilling and mesmeric. That moment becomes bookended at the end of Act II when her hands grasp helplessly out to her daughter as she falls like a broken, crumpled sack into her arms.

For Heffernan, it’s all in the feet which early on see him move light-footedly as Oppenheimer around the stage embracing his experiment with little thought of its repercussions. Yet at the end of the play, in the aftermath, those same feet that once moved so nimbly seemed like lead weights.

That feeling of an actor embodying a role makes for a thrilling journey of discovery which we, as an audience, take with us. In a business where you never stop learning, a great performance will stay in the memory long after the curtain has fallen.

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