thu 30/05/2024

An Actor Convalescing in Devon, Hampstead Theatre review - old school actor tells old school stories | reviews, news & interviews

An Actor Convalescing in Devon, Hampstead Theatre review - old school actor tells old school stories

An Actor Convalescing in Devon, Hampstead Theatre review - old school actor tells old school stories

Fact emerges skilfully repackaged as fiction in an affecting solo show by Richard Nelson

Paul Jesson in 'An Actor Convalescing in Devon' - go on, pull up a chairThe Other Richard

One can often be made to feel old in the theatre. A hot take in a snappy 90 minutes (with video!) on the latest Gen Z obsession (is it even Gen Z, or were they last year, Daddio?) can leave one baffled or wondering whose gripe is it anyway. Sometimes the new blood feels like an exotic Type AB negative, when we’re boring old O positive and the transfusion is rejected.

But, occasionally, we bus pass holders can be made to feel old in a nice, slippers and no pipe any more (doctor’s orders), way, the subjects familiar, the atmosphere warm, the themes washing over the fourth wall and not fired into it. 

The truth is that there’s room for both approaches, but one sees rather more of the first than the second, the category into which Richard Nelson’s new play at Hampstead Downstairs, written specifically for Paul Jesson (pictured below), squarely falls.     We’re in the company of an actor (and a pointedly empty chair) initially en route by train to Devon to recover from cancer surgery. He’s in a reflective mood and is soon weaving a tapestry of reminiscences from a long and largely happy life. There’s the partner, also an actor, who wasn’t supposed to go first but did, friends and family, snatches of Shakespeare and tales of parts played and people missed flowing in and out of his stories. It’s not a linear account of a life, more a grab bag of things important and less important as they float into his consciousness – the older one gets, the more one recognises that way of recalling events, history as a mosaic not a book.

There’s a poignancy underpinning this one-man show, as Jesson himself has had surgery on his mouth affecting the actor’s prize tools of the trade – his facial expressions and the tone and cadence of his voice. It’s probably customary at this point to use adjectives like "brave" and "courageous" but I suspect that Jesson might quail a little and suggest that he’s an actor doing a job and that all parts require him to find the truth in them and this one is no different. It’s certainly the case that Clarissa Brown directs without a whiff of sentimentality, the trust between writer, performer and director the bedrock of the play’s conception and execution.

There’s something else too, the kind of thing one doesn’t know one misses until it’s presented to you and one realises that one does. I last saw it in the late Barry Humphries’ one-man show and you can catch examples on Youtube from chat show appearances by Peter O’Toole or Richard Harris and from great friends, Kenneth Williams and Maggie Smith on Parkinson.  

It’s the showbiz anecdote told by masters of storytelling with no show to sell, no thought of clipping up for TikTok, no axe to grind – just the ancient desire of one human being to engage others in their lives. Though the tales we hear from Jesson are fictitious, the people and incidents are real, only lightly disguised for our pleasure.

And pleasure is the currency of this show. Sure there’s pain too, grief for a lost partner, concern for one’s own failing health, a comfort taken in retreating from a world through which one once strode with vigour. That said, there are compensations too, mining a good life well-lived from the perspective of an old age. For just over an hour, one can wallow a little in the company of a fine actor in command of a lovely script with just the right level of insistence from real world problems to keep the thing honest.

No doubt a youthful demographic might not be ready for this production, but if you know, you know. And if you know, you’ll enjoy.     

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