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Orson’s Shadow

Louise Ford and John Hodgkinson in Orson's Shadow at the Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Simon Annand Louise Ford and John Hodgkinson in Orson's Shadow at the Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Simon Annand

Plays about theatre making and theatrical personalities may veer towards narcissistic naval gazing. But Austin Pendleton, an American actor and director turned playwright, has alighted on a fascinating behind-the-scenes real-life story, populated by larger-than-life characters, that makes for really gripping viewing.

This vividly told and multi-layered play offers a re-imagined insider’s glimpse of the politics and personalities of the true story of the famous 1960 Royal Court production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros that starred Laurence Olivier and his future wife Joan Plowright, directed by Orson Welles and brought together by the most famous critic of the day, Kenneth Tynan, who would become Olivier’s right-hand literary man a few years later at the newly born National Theatre.

Though they are putting on Rhinoceros, there are lots of elephants in the room, which eventually stampede in this epic clash of egos and wills: Welles believing Olivier had sabotaged his Hollywood career in 1948, and Olivier holding a long-standing resentment against Tynan for a hostile review that destroyed his then wife Vivien Leigh’s confidence. Meanwhile Olivier’s new relationship with Plowright develops as Leigh herself hovers on the edge of mania. This is a rich dramatic stew, and Pendleton cooks it up beautifully (if at times long-windedly).

Alice Hamilton’s production, resourcefully staged in a reconfigured in-the-round Southwark Playhouse, reeks of greasepaint and anxiety, and is propelled by a series of magnificent performances, led by Edward Bennett as a stammering Tynan, Adrian Lukis as an imposing but insecure Olivier, and John Hodgkinson as the self-destructive genius Welles. This is supported by characterful work from Gina Bellman and Louise Ford as the two women in Olivier’s life, Leigh and Plowright respectively. There’s also a scene-stealing turn from Ciaran O’Brien in the imagined character of a harried stage manager.

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A play that is required viewing for anyone with a passing interest in theatre history is beautifully served by a production that offers a powerful human history, too