A tour-de-force which makes for an extraordinary evening

Review by Paul Nelson

FOR almost three hours (there was a short intermission) Elaine Stritch held her audience in the palm of her hand at the Old Vic with her solo performance Elaine Stritch At Liberty.

The show is almost a travelogue. Written by John Lahr (the programme says 'constructed by' and is obviously based on her own reminiscences) it tells the story of a starry eyed kid and her journey from nowhere to being a Broadway star, and it pulls no punches.

If anybody did the dirt on Elaine, she publicly tells it, if they gave her a hand, she publicly appreciates it, and if they gave her a shoulder to cry on, or she gave them a shoulder to cry on, you have it.

It is an extraordinary performance.

Illustrated with songs, several of them not made famous by her, but which illustrate a given point, such as 'This Is All Very New To Me' from Plain and Fancy, a show which so far as I am aware, she had nothing to do with, but a song which illustrates perfectly her first fascination with booze. A major factor in her life.

Being on stage she finds intimidating and there has to be someone, or thing, holding her hand. In her case, alcohol. She runs through a list of shows and the corresponding brand of whatever helped her through it. It is a diverse list.

There are many very amusing anecdotes, as you would expect. Hiding her drink from producer Frederick Brisson (married to Rosalind Russell and dubbed 'The Lizard of Roz'), first class champagne, what else, whilst appearing in Coward's Sail Away, beers, vodkas, and one show which was so traumatic that the craving was for 'anything I could lay my hands on'.

There is a brilliant tour-de-force in her description of understudying Ethel Merman (who was never off) in Call Me Madam and at the same time getting a job in a revival produced by Jule Styne and Richard Rodgers of Pal Joey. The show was to open cold in Manhattan, so she would be able to check Merman was in the theatre, and then nip across to appear in Pal Joey.

Rodgers decided the show was to have previews out of town. This would still be okay; she would be able to make it to Connecticut for the second act in which she appeared after checking in to see if Merman was in the theatre on Broadway. Except for the blizzard. Listening to this series of close disasters the audience was in tears of laughter.

And that about sums up the show. We laughed, we cheered her brilliant performances of songs she has been associated with and some she hasn't, and at the end, she naturally got a standing ovation.

Elaine Stritch is incomparable, and the audience did its bonkers thing. I was thankful they were mostly a certain age, which appreciated politeness; after all, it was the early Sixties when she conquered most of us in Sail Away. There was no yapping like inmates from the Battersea Dogs Home, just stamping, cheering and wild applause leading to the standing ovation. All very civilised.
I think, looking back on one of the most exciting evenings in the theatre, that probably Elaine Stritch enjoyed it more than anyone else.

Elaine Stritch At Liberty constructed by John Lahr, Reconstructed by Elaine Stritch. Scenic design Riccardo Hernandez (UK Set & Costume Designer Andy Edwards), Sound Design Matt McKenzie At Autograph, Lighting (based on the original designs of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer) Chris Ellis, Orchestrations Jonathan Tunick, Music Direction Rob Bowman, Directed by George C Wolfe. Presented by Old Vic Productions plc, Mark Goucher Limited