views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Heavens of Invention
Jermyn Street Theatre
4th March 2015


Publicity image for Larry

Photography supplied by Jermyn Street Theatre

In this double bill of monologues, together titled Heavens of Invention, playwright Michael Burgess looks back at two of the arts' iconic contributors: film legend Laurence Olivier and Bond creator Ian Fleming. Both plays revolve around the lives of famous men born in the early part of the 20th century, whose reputations continue to live on. Each is peppered with references, which initially suggest a good amount of research and background knowledge on the part of the playwright, but quickly become grating, particularly in the first, Larry.

Despite Burgess writing both, the quality seems very inconsistent. In Larry, the protagonist is given a lengthy monologue which feels a lot like one man reading out his own autobiography in a babbling and unarresting manner. Some of this blame lies with director Daniel Finlay, who doesn't convince us that Laurence (Keith Drinkel) is quietly musing to himself - but the majority of blame lies with Burgess for writing such dialogue in the first place.

We do catch a brief glimpse of Laurence's vulnerability as a stark spotlight bears down on him and he panics about forgetting his lines. The rest of the stage is shrouded in darkness, with nowhere for Laurence to hide. Olivier suffered with failing health towards the end of his career and found himself in less demanding roles, and this decline is fictionalised here in a very human way. However, we just don't get enough of this emotion - these moments where we truly connect with Laurence and pity him are fleeting, the majority of the 60 minutes is dedicated to a blow by blow recap of his acting career thus far.

There is something of interest if you're well-acquainted with Olivier's life and works, as the infrequent laughs of recognition from the audience demonstrate, but Larry just doesn't hold up as a play in its own right. I always feel that history should serve as the background to a monologue about a real person, but here history is the monologue. There's little sentiment, character development or, well, reason for what's happening on stage. We know that the Laurence in front of us has just been cast in Marathon Man, and that's prompted him to look back on his achievements and his worries for the future, but that's just not enough meat to sustain a full hour.

Publicity image for The Man with the Golden Pen

Photography supplied by Jermyn Street Theatre

When time passes - in fact jumping eight years - it's not particularly clear from either the direction or the writing. There are several places where a break would make sense, and that does make the eventual conclusion seem like it takes far longer to arrive than it actually does. Drinkel comes out the the best in this, but there aren't really any winners in Larry. It's a little disappointing, rather than any grand tribute.

Far more successful is second play, The Man with the Golden Pen. It's just much more relatable and more human - this is the story of a man in crisis. Ian (Michael Chance) is facing the end of his bachelorhood and it's prompted him to imagine and speak to Bond, the ultimate symbol of the life he's planning to leave behind. Burgess cleverly links Bond's life with Fleming's, with excepts from the author's novels and films interweaving with the plot. Chance is quietly worried, openly assured, and with a roguish charm to him. His character is hedonistic, but that doesn't mean he's not capable of forging real connections with people, and we do see his softer side as he frets over his relationship with wife Ann. There's just more genuine characterisation in this piece.

The passage of time is thankfully more evident here, and serves an actual purpose, although the scene change between acts is overlong. Whilst Louise Jameson's use of lighting and video projection is nice, you do feel that more Bond footage could enhance the overall finish. There are lovely callbacks from Burgess in the narrative - although there are hints of a shared formula in both pieces of writing, it's a surprise to learn that he's behind both of them. The Man with the Golden Pen is a much stronger script.

Given the subject matter, you can understand why Chancel Productions have chosen to stage both shows together, but one is much more worth seeing than the other. Perhaps Olivier was just such a damn good actor that you simply can't find the truth behind the man. And maybe Fleming, pardon the pun, was a bit more of an open book.

Heavens of Invention opened on 2nd March and runs until 7th March 2015 at Jermyn Street Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Piccadilly (Piccadilly, Bakerloo)

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