LETTER TO LARRY
by Donald MacDonald.
Jermyn Street theatre 16b Jermyn Street SW1Y 6ST 15 October 2014.
Runs 1hr 10min No interval.
TICKETS: 020 7287 2875.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 1 October.
The dark background of fame made personal.
It’s hard, nowadays, to understand the celebrity of Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh in the 1950s. She was Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With the Wind, he another heart-throb Brit on Hollywood celluloid. But also England’s greatest, most romantic classical actor, star of London’s best-known home of Shakespeare, the Old Vic, and lead at Stratford-upon-Avon, where his brave physical risks added to the resonant voice and commanding appearance to electrify audiences.
But by 1958 it was almost two decades since Vivien’s Scarlett. There had been a lot of another days between. Olivier was very much in the present, taking his part in the new wave of underdog writing from the Royal Court, meeting the young Joan Plowright early in her acting career. She later became his third wife.
Donald Macdonald’s one-woman play – a voice offstage occasionally calls her to duty but Duel of Angels, the ironically titled play in which Vivien was touring, is driven from her mind by Olivier’s letter asking to separate. To which she replied in the papers, creating a scandal for the emotionally restrained fifties.
That response forms Macdonald’s script. Susie Lindeman enters from the side, apparently having just left the stage of Duel and contrasts the glamour with the lonely bedsit awaiting her on tour. It sets a sadness and self-justification which, once its rapidity and softness have come into focus, are the springboard for Leigh’s voice to venture into distinct emotions – regret, anger, injury.
Olivier would, within a few years, be running the new National Theatre, advised on literary matters by theatre reviewer Kenneth Tynan. The leading critic of his day, Tynan admired the animal-magic of Olivier’s performances but thought little of Leigh’s ability, enhancing her sense of exclusion from the husband who was rationalising his abandonment of the once-bright star now falling apart on tour.
A fascinating slice of theatre history, this Letter will be delivered in full production next spring at Jermyn Street. Meanwhile, there is the third of three matinee showings on the set of John Van Druten’s Flowers of the Forest, another Jermyn Street reclamation from last century’s theatre.
Vivien Leigh: Susie Lindeman.
Lighting: Phil Hunter.