First Night: Stewart pulls off a tricky weighty role, but anorexic script fails to satisfy

A Life in the Theatre Apollo Theatre, London

BEING A "senior" actor is a doubled-edged sword. On the one hand, there's no shortage of jobs - from the Everest peak of King Lear downwards, age is not a penalty to ageing thespians. On the other hand, though, many of the job opportunities involve playing a role where the younger generation knocks on the door and you have to (a) transmit a sense of how precarious a situation this is and (b) win by a simultaneous display of authority and recognition of the youthful talents that are so very nearly edging you into the pit.

Patrick Stewart pulled off this with huge aplomb recently in a West End production of Ibsen's The Master Builder, a play almost cruelly designed to get the best notices for the aspiring young girl who enters the life of the eponymous architect. The actress concerned won a "Most Promising Newcomer" award and it was great to seen Stewart cheering her on from the stalls at the ceremony.

In a similar situation Patrick Stewart is wonderful now in Lindsay Posner's highly adroit production of David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre. He plays Robert, an elderly actor who is teamed onstage and off with Joshua Jackson's John.

Robert is a difficult role. You have to communicate technical excellence at the same time as sending out the feeling that excellence in acting has ceased to be enough for Robert. He has to suggest that the elderly actor is a lonely individual. The one-upmanship in an early scene is actually a way of saying, "I don't have anyone to go out to dinner with tonight. It would be in your interest and in mine, if we could somehow get it together, to go out with one another".

Stewart's performance is so skilled that it kept reminding me of something that Barbra Streisand once said. In 1963 she was the guest star on a Judy Garland special and she could not work out why Judy's hand was shaking like a leaf. Of course, once she got to the age that Garland was at the time, Streisand had no difficulty in understanding the nerves. Patrick Stewart puts one in touch with that kind of problem.

Unfortunately, neither the excellence of the directing, nor the slow- burn drollness of Joshua Jackson's performance can disguise the anorexic dramaturgy that is on offer here. You leave the theatre thinking: where's the show? And the tickets are too expensive to make you feel that this is a some kind of luvvie joke.

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