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Red Velvet review at Garrick Theatre, London – ‘weight and dignity’

Adrian Lester in Red Velvet at the Garrick Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Hot on the heels, so to speak, of Mr Foote’s Other Leg – and just ahead of the West End transfer of Nell Gwynn — comes yet another backstage drama based on theatre history with this revival of Lolita Chakrabarti’s debut play about the life of the 19th century actor Ira Aldridge.

Premiering at the Tricycle in 2012 – as part of director Indhu Rubasingham’s inaugural season – it’s a good fit for the Branagh Company’s residency at the Garrick. Branagh opened with Terence Rattigan’s play about theatrical life, Harlequinade, and later in the year will also star in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, taking on the role originated by Laurence Olivier, himself one of the most famous of all 20th-century Othellos.

Aldridge was the first black actor to play the role on the London stage and the American performer’s race and origins initially rattled audiences, critics and his fellow company members.

Adrian Lester – who also tackled the role of Othello at the National in 2013 – plays Aldridge with weight, gravity and immense dignity. It’s a story full of reverberations. Theatre history never exists in isolation, and indeed Lester — who, in his career, has also played Hamlet for Peter Brook and Henry V at the National — is a beneficiary of battles like the one shown here, and of the legacy of performers like Aldridge who paved the way.

Chunks of the play are lifted verbatim from Shakespeare and Rubasingham’s production is full of affectionate demonstrations of the acting styles of the day. But there are some supporting performances here which are a little over-ripe and over-projected even in this context – even when they are supposed to be playing real people and not actors in a play.

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Verdict
Adrian Lester reprises his award-winning performance, bringing an intriguing chapter of theatre history to life
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