Early exit ends Warner's West End comeback

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The Independent Culture

Scathing reviews have cut short actor David Warner's return to West End theatre, after a 30-year absence brought on by stage fright.

He had chosen The Feast of Snails, a new work by an Icelandic playwright, Olaf Olafsson, for his theatrical comeback. But critics rubbished the play mercilessly and its final performance at the Lyric in Shaftesbury Avenue will be on 23 March. Even then, its five-week run will have been far longer than some reviewers felt it deserved.

Although the final performance date had been left open, meaning it is not technically closing "early", a spokesman admitted everyone was disappointed. The reviews which were almost uniformly rude about the play, even if Warner's own performance received more positive notices.

Jonathan Myerson, The Independent's critic, said: "The Feast of Snails is saved from closing in the interval only by the fact that, mercifully, it has no interval." It was, he added, "completely devoid of characterisation, tension, change, growth, surprise or drama".

The Daily Mail review said: "David Warner comes out of his shell at a snail's pace." And Nicholas de Jongh, on the Evening Standard, and Benedict Nightingale in The Daily Telegraph were among those to lament that he had failed to find a play worthy of his talent.

"It's a serious joy to see him giving a nerveless and accomplished performance in his London comeback," Mr Nightingale said, adding: "Still, I wish he were returning in something more taxing and dramatically exciting."

The short run is all the more devastating because the 60-year old's return to the stage had been laced with such expectation.

He was one of the most brilliant young Shakespearean actors of his generation, thrust into the limelight when Peter Hall cast him for his Wars of the Roses in 1963. "I know a star when I see one," he said later. Warner went on to spectacular career with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s with dazzling performances in Henry VI and Richard II, and a Hamlet which many critics and theatre fans considered definitive.

But after playing the lead in an theatrical adaptation of I, Claudius, stage fright engulfed him and until last month he had not set foot on British boards since 1972. Instead, he based himself in the United States, married an American and took dozens of rather less exacting roles in film and television, including Straw Dogs, Titanic and Hornblower. He overcame the stage fright only when he was persuaded to appear last year in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara in New York, partly because his wife complained she had never seen him in the theatre. The performance was as acclaimed as Feast of Snails has been slated.

Warner said he had chosen Olafsson's play because his character, a millionaire industrialist eating a gourmet dinner alone in his mansion, was the kind of role he had been longing for "eccentric, outgoing, outspoken and a bit humorous". Sadly, his critics had rather different adjectives in mind for it.