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ORSON’S SHADOW – Southwark Playhouse, London.

Orsons+Shadow+1+(small)+John+Hodgkinson+(Orson+Welles)+and+Ciaran+O’Brien+(Sean)+Photo+Simon+AnnandThe way renowned theatre critic Kenneth Tynan is characterised by playwright Austin Pendleton in Orson’s Shadow, leaves one to infer that a critic is no-one and not to be trusted. However, I hope that you will trust me when I say that Orson’s Shadow is magnificent in every way: the writing, performance and staging – it has it all.

The cast as a whole is incredibly strong and under Alice Hamilton’s direction, Orson’s Shadow is a thoroughly enjoyable experience as well as an insight, albeit fictional, into the lives of some of British theatre’s ‘greats’. We meet Kenneth Tynan as he persuades Orson Welles to direct Laurence Olivier in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros – and then as he persuades Laurence Olivier to be directed by Orson Welles. Pendleton then masterfully weaves in the complexities of their personal lives, loves and failures into this lexically rich script.

Casting Director Ruth O’Dowd has put together a gem of a cast. Ciaran O’Brien in the role of Sean the stagehand delivers every line with genius comic timing that perfectly balances the slightly erratic, pedantic characterisation of Laurence Olivier, played with aplomb by Adrian Lukis and the darkly brilliant Orson Welles played with gravitas by John Hodgkinson. O’Brien’s presence in any scene brings a wonderful mirthful quality to each moment, especially when around the beautifully damaged Vivien Leigh played with great poise by Gina Bellman. Louise Ford as Joan Plowright, “the only living character in this play”, opens up the craftsmanship of acting to the audience throughout, provoking and cajoling all of the (non-living) characters simultaneously with marvellous style. Yet is it Edward Bennet’s sublime performance as Kenneth Tynan that really stands out. Each utterance is carefully constructed by Pendleton and delivered by Bennet with the exact tone to match, whether it is a witty diatribe or a moment of sincerity.

The mix of direct speech to the audience, jokes directly at the theatrical form, gobbets of information about the ‘real’ people behind these characters, highlights Pendleton’s cleverness in constructing a script. Although many styles are combined, they play presents itself as a succinct exposure of the often bizarre process from preliminary discussions about a piece, through to the action of the rehearsal room. Complete with scones and jam and late night steaks, Orson’s Shadow really does have it all when it comes to theatricality.

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Reviewed 06/07/2015

By Emily Jones

1st – 25th July 2015
Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD.

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