Orson’s Shadow | Southwark Playhouse | Review

Southwark Playhouse | until July 25th 2015.

Austin Pendleton’s play Orson’s Shadow is a fictional account of when theatre critic Kenneth Tynan suggests that his friend Orson Welles revitalise his failing career by directing Laurence Olivier and his mistress Joan Plowright in Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros at the Royal Court. Despite this seeming the theatrical match from heaven both Olivier and Welles have a ‘history’ and are not enamoured of each other.

Directed by Alice Hamilton, Orson’s Shadow opens with Kenneth Tynan played beautifully by Edward Bennett explaining the role of a theatre critic (bearing in mind this was press night it was particularly funny). He engages with the audience as a narrator and is the driving force for the collaboration between these colossal talents.

Louise Ford (Joan Plowright) and Adrian Lukis (Laurence Olivier)
Louise Ford (Joan Plowright) and Adrian Lukis (Laurence Olivier)

Orson’s Shadow gives us the men behind the myths. The first act with the help from Tynan slowly introduces you to the characters we know so well; Welles (John Hodgkinson) hasn’t had a success since Citizen Kane, he is overweight and not having luck either onstage or as a director. Larry the Luvvy (Adrian Lukis) is trying to be more ‘modern’ in his approach. His beautiful wife Vivien Leigh (Gina Bellman) is slightly unhinged and vulnerable knowing that her husband is being far from faithful.

Once the characters are introduced and the rehearsals are underway the mega-egos of Welles, Olivier and Leigh get in the way causing huge problems. This coupled with the fact that Olivier is torn between his love and duty towards his wife, and his new love for Plowright (Louise Ford), tensions are rife throughout the play.

Orsons Shadow 8 (small) Gina Bellman (Vivien Leigh) and John Hodgkinson (Orson Welles) Photo Simon Annand
Gina Bellman (Vivien Leigh) and John Hodgkinson (Orson Welles)

Orson’s Shadow is widely billed as a comedy however although there are some good comic moments and great one-liners my overwhelming feeling was there was a lot of tension in this play, not just between Orson and Oliviers but between all the characters.

The performances were powerful and heartfelt, I don’t know if they were accurate and true to reality but at times I felt them uncomfortable to watch. I am sure the characters private lives are well documented however I prefer to remember these people as great actors and groundbreakers rather than the disturbing portrayals in this production –it was all a little sad really.

Photo Credits – Simon Annand

Orson’s Shadow is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until the 25th July

Booking details can be found here.


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