Tuesday 16 April 2024

Theatre review: An Actor Convalescing in Devon

Richard Nelson's An Actor Convalescing in Devon, about a Shakespearean actor who lost part of his jaw and soft palate to cancer and had to learn how to speak again, was written especially for Paul Jesson - a Shakespearean actor who lost part of his jaw and soft palate to cancer and had to learn how to speak again. The other elements of his story borrow from a variety of other sources and themes though, perhaps too many for a short monologue. Jesson's character, simply called The Actor, is waiting to board a train to Exeter and then on to a friend's country cottage for a long weekend. If he's going there to convalesce it's not so much from his physical illness though - while he was in hospital his partner and fellow actor Michael had a heart attack and, because he wasn't resuscitated quickly enough, suffered brain damage that left him confused about what was reality and what was a story he was performing in.

The Actor recovered but Michael didn't, and this weekend is - whether he realises it or not - his friend's attempt to get him back out into the world and away from his grief. The Actor is put out when he realises there are other guests and he keeps escaping to monologue to us, the audience, a relationship he feels comfortable in, but gradually he's drawn away and back to human interaction.

In the meantime we get reminiscences about Michael, anecdotes about their experiences in the theatre and those of other performers, deep dives into particular Shakespearean roles that held special meaning for them, and reflections on the relationship between actor and audience, and how the alchemy of that connection can't always be bottled or explained. Clarissa Nelson's production, directed "in collaboration with" the playwright which... definitely feels like a credit with a story or two of its own behind it, puts The Actor in front of Rob Howell's very simple design of a stage curtain that's fallen off its rails.

It's essentially just a setting for the actor to chat and reminiscence to us, which Jesson does very affably: If you did end up in real life listening to a man in his seventies tell you about his life story and his ailments, you'd be lucky to get someone as charming and entertaining as Jesson talking to you for an hour. It's a bit too on-the-nose as far as rambling monologues go though, with the stories and subjects jumbling around each other a bit too haphazardly. I like theatre that sets you off into the night putting it together, but I like the play itself to have done a bit of that work too, and while not dull I'm not convinced An Actor Convalescing in Devon has entirely figured out what it's about.

An Actor Convalescing in Devon by Richard Nelson is booking until the 11th of May at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Rich Lakos.

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