ARTS / Cries & Whispers

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The Independent Culture
NICOL WILLIAMSON departed the West End last weekend as strangely as he had exploded back into it after a 15-year absence. When his one-man show Jack - A Night on the Town with John Barrymore opened on 18 May, Williamson invited his first-night audience to stay behind for champagne and an impromptu jazz concert. On the second night, apparently shattered by the excesses of the first, he walked off stage after seven minutes. Regaining his nerve, he went on to perform the play - an emotionally and physically demanding piece that involves wrestling with another Jack (Daniel, the whiskey) and jogging around the stalls chanting Shakespearian soliloquies - seven times a week for six weeks. The notices were mixed, and the box-office didn't get the lift it might have expected from the publicity. But Williamson on stage these days is too rare to miss, and the show was called Jack. So on a sweltering Saturday afternoon I headed for Piccadilly, fought off the temptation to loiter outside Lillywhite's Wimbledon window, and slid down into the Criterion Theatre.

For which I got warmly thanked by Williamson. After two-and-a-quarter hours of bravura performance - the play, which he co-wrote, is uneven, but the acting is sensational, every mood, rage and stupor in the book - the star duly took his bow. Applause was as rapturous as it can be when the dress circle is closed, the stalls are only half full and the youngest person present is me. We clapped until Williamson motioned us to stop. This was his last day with Jack and he wanted to chat.

'It was princely of you all to come in here on such a hot afternoon,' he started, 'and you've been a great audience.' We glowed. Were there any Yanks present? Several hands went up in affirmation. Being a half-Yank himself he wasn't surprised. And then he was off, on a spiel as impassioned as anything in the play. After all this time in America he hadn't known what to expect from the British press, but Bernard Levin (who devoted his Times column to a eulogy of Jack) had shown them. John Barrymore was a genius. 'Sure he was self-destructive, but d'you know something? He never complained.' Theatre was important. 'You've got to have it] You've got to fucking have it]'

It wasn't necessarily the end of Jack - Williamson hopes to take him to Broadway in the autumn. Otherwise, he has no plans: he doesn't even have an agent at the moment. Nice seeing you, Nicol.