THEATRE / Drinking and drying with Jack: Williamson and his subject are bound together by the belief that nothing matches acting (CORRECTED)

CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 29 MAY 1994) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

FIFTEEN years absent from the British stage, Nicol Will iamson returns to the West End in his own one-man play - Jack: A Night on the Town with John Barrymore - about the self-destructive career of the Broadway megastar. Even without the transatlantic gossip of Williamson's own self-destructive appearance as Barrymore's ghost in I Hate Hamlet, it sounds a recipe for disaster. On Wednesday the show takes off like a rocket. On Thursday Williamson walks off stage after six minutes, leaving an audience clamouring for their money back. As I write, he is back on stage, hopefully to stay.

Exhaustion was the official reason for cancellation, but when has that ever been an alibi in the acting profession? Some other scale of priorities seems to be involved, equally accounting for the previous night's triumph when he threw a champagne party for the audience and invited them back to hear him as a band vocalist. Nor is the show itself simply a professional job; still less a vanity event. Barrymore (1882-1942) is best known for having destroyed himself with drink. Williamson slams in through an exit door, and practically the first thing he says on reaching the stage is that he's not giving us the drunk scene. Actually, his first words are, 'I've just been fired,' as he spits out the details of one of Barrymore's Hollywood humiliations. But it is an explosion of incredulous rage from a man at the height of his powers: no food for Schadenfreude there. What really binds Williamson and his subject together is the shared belief that nothing in life matches the satisfaction of acting; but if that fails there are other ways of having a hell of a good time.

Williamson, when he needs them, has all the professional resources. The carroty hair has thinned a bit, but otherwise he is unchanged. The lean, assertive figure still moves like an uncoiling spring. Vocally, his speed and energy are prodigious; likewise his lightning transitions of mood. The effect is like a spinning colour wheel. Blink and you've probably missed some brilliant detail. But central to all the emotional athletics is the same basic character that pervaded his youthful performances in Women Beware Women and Inadmissible Evidence: a rampant male ego with full insight into its own absurdity and death. As in the past, there comes a moment when the commanding posture sags, and you find yourself looking into the face of a dismayed child.

Williamson the playwright (working with Leslie Megahey) ensures that such moments take place off the narrative beat, and never amount to a plea for sympathy. If there is pathos in the record of Barrymore's marital and film-studio failures it is syncopated pathos, from which Williamson instantly bounces back into the next project, or affair. In the first half of the evening, you share his exhilaration in emerging as America's leading classicist. Not since Pygmalion has the learning process been so zestfully dramatised, as he submits to a gruelling course of breath-control exercises and tongue-twisters, and gradually finds that he is enjoying himself. All Williamson's skills as a singer, hoofer and mimic go into these preparations.

He also spends the first half studiously avoiding a prominently displayed bottle of Jack Daniels. In the second half he is ransacking the set for near- empty bottles, as the taxman and divorce lawyers close in and the Hollywood moguls fade out. The sight of this fabled Hamlet drying in mid-soliloquy is almost too painful to watch. But then comes an uproarious Indian memory cure, which he celebrates by getting smashed and commandeering a whorehouse. You ought to feel sorry. What you do feel is that it must have been another hell of a good time. While Williamson is still on the scene, do not miss him.

Irene Worth, alas, is no longer on the scene, and I can only offer a farewell salute to her Portrait of Edith Wharton which vanished from the Cottesloe last week after four performances. As a fellow New Yorker of equally devastating good breeding, Worth was as wonderfully funny as you'd expect in passages from Wharton's novels on the Manhattan super-rich, and in her recollection of getting lost in Windsor after dark with a clueless Henry James. Just as definitive and much more surprising was the evocation of Wharton's work with First World War refugees and her adventures in Morocco; along with a steamingly graphic fragment of incestuous pornography. 'As you see,' Worth announced, opening her arms to the house, 'I speak from the woman's viewpoint.' I hope someone has had the sense to preserve this jewel on video.

Next door, at the Olivier, Phyllida Lloyd's Pericles opens with the sight of Ancient Gower (Henry Goodman) leaping out of a grand piano to dispatch the hero to Antioch, whose villainous ruler (Kathryn Hunter) enters in the form of a vast scarlet balloon and then shrivels into a dwarf hauled around on a go- kart by menials. If you need to read that sentence again, I have succeeded in conveying something of this event.

Audiences embarking on this romantic travelogue require spectacle, and Lloyd and her designer (Mark Thompson) have not skimped in that department. The air is loud with Gary Yershon's exotic percussion (not to mention the hero's solos on piano and chime bars). With every port of call comes another fantastic set of costumes, from the befeathered court of Tarsus to the Eskimos of Pentapolis. Then it is all aboard the Olivier revolve and off to the tassled veils and flower-pot hats of Ephesus. The effect of all this decoration is to submerge narrative under choreography: there is no sense of a town starving, an assassin pursuing a victim, or a hero doing battle for a princess.

Pericles may be a silly fairy tale; but woe betide the director who holds it up to ridicule, as Lloyd does here, with farcical ethnic and gender switches, pantomime mockery of Gower's narrative, and burlesque treatment of Marina's would-be murderers. The brothel scenes - for which Miss Hunter memorably re-emerges as a balding vulture in black-eye patch - bring the show down to earth (they always do). Otherwise, for all its paraphernalia, it is weightless: and Douglas Hodge's Pericles, fooling no one in his last-act whiskers, remains a blank, vocally underpowered juvenile. The test of any production of this play is the emotional impact of its long- delayed reunions. On this occasion their impact is zero.

Peter Wood's revival of Ben Travers's The Bed Before Yesterday reveals a creakier but more courageous piece than I remember from 1975. In telling the story of a middle-aged heiress's sexual awakening, Travers used his old farcical equipment to make a new kind of play; and so far as the supporting characters are concerned, he failed to make the jump from situation-bound stereotype into comic individuality.

But the central relationship remains amazing. In it, Travers shows two respectable citizens, both stuck in their ways, painfully tearing away layer after layer of moral indoctrination and honestly acknowledging that what they want most is money and sex. In the process, Travers himself sheds his safe farcical technique and achieves a kind of non-judgmental laughter which is inseparable from the sense of discovery.

The Almeida partners are unequally matched, as Charles Kay's Victor still has one foot in the world of farce. He never misses a laugh, at the expense of remaining rather dislikeable. Brenda Blethyn, with her tightly coiled hair and sudden flashing smiles, knows all about Alma, from her self-critical irritability through all the phases of awakening, up to the humiliation that completes her sentimental education. Some spectators, I notice, still balked at that: I felt like cheering.

So did Monday's audience for the Shared Experience production of The Mill on the Floss. Following last year's superb Anna Karenina this is another collaboration between Nancy Meckler and Helen Edmundson, justifying the act of adaptation through purposeful selection and translation of the narrative into spatial poetry. In the case of Maggie Tulliver, George Eliot's rebel heroine, they pursue the idea of witchcraft, beginning with a witch- ducking and returning to the same image in the flood that reunites Maggie with her beloved brother. Three actresses, Shirley Henderson, Buddug Morgan and Helen Schlesinger, play different aspects of a heroine whom Victorian society compelled to be at war with herself. A tricky device that goes straight to the heart.

'Jack - An Evening on the Town with John Barrymore': Criterion, WC2, 071-839 4488. 'Pericles': Olivier, SE1, 071-928 2252. 'The Bed Before Yesterday': Almeida, N1, 071-359 4404. 'The Mill on the Floss': Tricycle, NW6, 071-328 1000.

CORRECTION

In my notice of the Shared Experience production of 'The Mill on the Floss' last week, I failed to credit Polly Teale as Nancy Meckler's co-director. Apologies.

(Photograph omitted)

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