THEATRE / A mirror of frustration: Rhoda Koenig sees John Barrymore revisited

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The Independent Culture
They both were celebrated Hamlets, they both drank and hit people but, aside from that, you'd have to think long and hard to find much correspondence between Nicol Williamson and John Barrymore. Williamson's angular presence, raspy voice, and sour, accusatory manner have little to do with Barrymore's elfin charm, tender lyricism, and gleeful malevolence, and one doesn't see any attempt at a transformation. Indeed, dropping his Gs, glaring at the audience, and truculently bleating, Williamson makes his subject into a well-worn bit of rough.

'Devised' by Williamson and Leslie Megahey, and directed by the latter, Jack - a Night on the Town with John Barrymore presents Barrymore in his mid-fifties (as Williamson is now), telling us stories of the New York and London stage, of Hollywood, and of his three 'bus accidents', as he characterises his misadventures in marriage. The play ends with his setting off to get run over by Elaine Barrie, his last and most ludicrous mate, and also stops short of the worst degradation of the few years left to him - parodying himself in an inept farce which he regularly interrupted with drunken clowning and smutty ad libs.

Jack provides a more dignified frame for Williamson's recitation, in a rogue-and- peasant blouse, of Shakespearian snippets. He also, in the most entertaining sequence, races round the theatre to demonstrate a series of vocal exercises ('Nessun Dorma', Shakespeare on the hoof), and he performs a number of antique popular songs - so many that he seems to be recapitulating his role of Archie Rice in The


There are other hints, in these anecdotes strung together with profanity and anachronism (of Richard III: 'I mean, he's a physical cripple, right?'), of a similarity between Williamson's and Barrymore's careers, if not their temperaments. For long stretches, one reels like an embarrassed captive at the bar of the Players Club while an old, difficult actor complains of being unappreciated. Barrymore meets Greta Garbo and tells us, 'She says that I am the most perfect gentleman she's ever known.' Winston Churchill calls him 'a modern

American hero'.

In the absence of fans, this Barrymore angrily praises himself: 'Probably the best actor in the world and can't get one decent goddamn job.'

Besides discomfiting us with the likeness to Williamson's own famous long-term unemployment, such remarks emphasise the poverty of his impersonations, the way this grinding resentment cancels any possibility of Barrymore- like danger and surprise. John Barrymore, in defiance of pretension and sanctimony, would sometimes publicly tear open his flies, or threaten to, but he was surely far too much a gentleman to exhibit his testimonials.

Continues until 16 July at the Criterion Theatre WC2 (box office: 071-839 4488)