Tuesday, 27 October 2009

John Lithgow: Stories By Heart (National Theatre)

I had a wonderful night at the theatre last night. Alison limped up to me in the National Theatre while I watched the jazz band playing in the foyer, we caught up over chocolate cake and a glass of wine, Charles Dance milled about -much to my delight- then we headed into the Lyttleton to see John Lithgow's one-man show.
He is a wonderful story teller, no doubt about it, I could have sat there all night listening to him! It actually felt strange to me that there was no encore! I've seen one-man plays before, but this didn't feel like a play, the bits when Lithgow was being himself, well, it was an acted memoir- he wrote it all, so I really wanted him to come out again and say "All right, one more, you crazy Limeys."
Lithgow started his show by telling his own stories, stories about his father, his father's youth and life running the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, then his decline. 2002; John Lithgow (a boy of 58 at the time) was nominated by his siblings to live with his parents and look after them for a month while his father recovered from an operation- he was nominated as he was the only one out of work at the time- Lithgow found the book of short stories that had been read to him as a child (the only prop in the play) on his parent's shelves and through telling them a bedtime story each night his father started to recover. He tells us the audience two very different stories from the book- but of course he doesn't use the book, he knows them by heart and he acts out all ten characters of the P.G. Wodehouse yarn and transforms himself into the barber from Ring Lardner's Haircut brilliantly.
So at the beginning when he's telling us about his family there's something schmaltzy about it that I think on a British stage doesn't work as well as it must have done in the Lincoln Centre, but surely he's allowed to be sentimental about his own family! It's only our attitude over here that made it a little close to cringey. Luckily straight after this dose of American schmaltz is a good helping of Uncle Fred and all is forgiven. It's a sign of a good storyteller, I could see every single character- even though obviously they were all John Lithgow- and it wasn't just the art of Wodehouse, Lithgow told it brilliantly. Wodehouse was made to be read aloud, TV and film adaptations lose everything because the funny is in the descriptions and narration not just the dialogue, so to have someone tell it and physically act it out at the same time, well, it was the BEST episode of Jackanory I'd ever seen -and that includes Rik Mayall.
In the second half Lithgow tells a different story, this is just one man talking, a barber giving a haircut. Lardner's story was obviously not as good as Wodehouse (nothing is) but it was personal to Lithgow (it was written with his home town in mind and he read it as a boy) and it was an excellent opportunity for him to showcase another character and a lot of excellent mime! He is a brilliant actor (comic actor of course) It was complete transformation from the character of "John Lithgow" who sang a a peppy ditty about murder and adultery before beginning his next tale, just by taking off his jacket he's suddenly a gossipy old Ohio barber. It was a great performance and very American compared to the Wodehouse, unfortunately the lights went off just at the crux of the story and Lithgow had to try and recreate the tension he'd just told- if I was him I'd friggin' kill the lighting guy, there were only two performances and that happens right before the end of the last one?! Anyway, he recovered it very well and we (the audience) were all gripped anyway, we all knew that wasn't the end, we were silently waiting to hear the rest of it in that second of darkness.
Probably because I'm a storyteller myself, or maybe not, maybe just because he was so good (or because I love P.G. Wodehouse!) I just loved it, I thought it was perfect theatre. First time for ages that I've come out of a theatre and thought 'that was perfect'. But it was.

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