Paul Jesson in An Actor Convalescing in Devon. Credit The Other Richard.

An Actor Convalescing In Devon | Hampstead Theatre | Review

Programmed as a companion piece to April De Angelis’ play about Mrs Siddons on Hampstead Theatre’s Main Stage, Richard Nelson’s one-man show, starring Paul Jesson (the Actor) is indeed well-paired for audiences who want a deep dive into the backstage and backstories of the theatre. Spinning amusing yarns about Laurence Olivier or a career playing TV judges, An Actor Convalescing in Devon belongs to the world visited by much of Hampstead Theatre’s productions of late – be it the hilarity of a legendary theatrical agent (Peggy for You) or a lip-syncing triumph about enacting Hamlet (Re-Member Me). There is clearly a market for theatre about theatre and the luvvier the better. Should this be your milieu or passion, then Nelson’s simple and sweet story may appeal.

Paul Jesson in An Actor Convalescing in Devon. Credit The Other Richard.
Paul Jesson in An Actor Convalescing in Devon. Credit The Other Richard.

Nelson’s script is peppered with theatrical anecdotes but also is a meditation on grief. The Actor talks of his beloved Michael and in his memories, we go everywhere with them. The imagery painted is specific and beautiful. Recollections of moments or stories told, whether collecting books by the National Theatre or finding stages in Sicily, are lyrical but, whilst not predictable per se, belong precisely to the reminiscences you’d expect of a bereaved, older actor. The struggles of speaking after cancer affecting the jaw and face are real and touching but, in some ways, the poetry and emotion of it comes across more eloquently on the page than in the performance.

The Actor describes another actor as “addicted to insecurity” whilst admitting that he sometimes feels he’s hanging on by his fingertips; “these memories are my fingertips. And I can’t let go.” The themes of loss, memory, mortality and survival are of course universal but the monologue is very much of British 20th century theatre. Is this a problem? Perhaps not but I suspect there would be little connection via this play’s discourse to these themes without prerequisite knowledge that few under the age of at least 50 would have.

The production, directed by Clarissa Brown, has a bittersweetness to it with entertaining elements. It is not especially electrifying or innovative but it is well written and well performed. I couldn’t help but wonder if this play would have been produced had Hampstead Theatre held onto its Arts Council funding. The show feels very much a retrospective of the mainstream rather than its launchpad.

3 stars

Review by Mary Beet

An actor boards a train from Waterloo, opting for the meandering, romantic route to the West Country for a weekend with an old friend. As the Devonshire countryside slips past the carriage window, his mind’s eye is filled with memories of a happy summer spent there with his late partner and fellow actor, Michael. As the train rolls towards his destination, our narrator takes us on our own journey – through his stories and thoughts about Shakespeare, friends, his career and the trials of his own health…

HAMPSTEAD DOWNSTAIRS / CELIA ATKIN PRESENT
AN ACTOR CONVALESCING IN DEVON
BY RICHARD NELSON
DIRECTED BY CLARISSA BROWN

5 APR – 11 MAY 2024
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

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