Conti delivers a star performance - but is it Barrymore's?

Review by David Munro

JOHN Drew Barrymore was the fallen angel of Broadway. Born into a theatrical dynasty, he surpassed his brother, Lionel, and his sister, Ethel, as both an actor and a personality.

Yet his talent and charisma could not save him from plunging out of the theatrical heaven of Broadway and Hollywood into a hell dominated by his demon - drink.

Today, he is best remembered - if at all - by the fact that he is the grandfather of another tormented, yet talented actor - Drew Barrymore.

That is, until Tom Conti decided to portray him in the twilight of his life in this unflinching, but heart-warming, vignette. In an evening of a couple or so hours, he brings to life a tormented genius, ruined by his desire for women and alcohol, yet still painfully aware of the talent he had squandered on them. But is he John Barrymore?

John Barrymore's 'Hamlet', seen in London in February 1925 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, was reckoned by many as the greatest portrayal of the role of the century, surpassing Gielgud and all the other great actors who portrayed it subsequently. Who can say? All one has left is gramophone records which, while capturing the voice and delivery, can give no real indication of the effect he had when on stage.

Known as the 'great Profile' - a tribute to his physical beauty, which he shamelessly exploited, both on stage and off, as the 'great lover' - he also excelled in stronger and more dramatic roles and even took parts where his handsome features could be distorted into fearsome ugliness, as in 'Richard III', which is what this play is concerned with - an attempt by Barrymore to return to the stage in that role even when he and everyone else, here personified by the stage manager, knows it is now beyond his power.

Tom Conti is, in his own right, a great actor and nothing he attempts can be a failure. He portrays to a 'T' the shoddy and dissolute actor reliving his past triumphs and unable to really accept his failure or the reason for it. As a performance it is riveting but I question whether it bears any relationship to John Barrymore.

Apart from the physical dissimilarities, one did not get the impression that his actor had ever been an eagle who soared over the profession, as did Barrymore, but merely a very talented crow. All through the piece I kept getting a nagging feeling of deja vu - perhaps to 'The Dresser' and to Wolfit, not Olivier.

Cavilling aside, though, this is a performance not to be ignored. Barrymore it may not be but as a portrayal of an actor at the end of his tether and career, living in a welter of drink and desperation, it is magnificent, as one would expect from Tom Conti.

You can believe that, at one time, he had bestrode the stage as a colossus, even if the stage was a provincial one, and feel pity for the state in which he now finds himself, so who cares if the author has decided to hang his premise on a not very secure hook.

The play's the thing and Conti is the Actor to play it, so be grateful and go to Richmond for a star performance of One Helluva Life, even if its lustre is diminished by its setting.

One Helluva Life, Written by William Luce, directed by Bryan Forbes and Lighting by Leonard Tucker. WITH: Tom Conti, Rupert Farley. Richmond Theatre, The Green, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 1QJ. Box Office: 020 8940 0088. From Monday, December 2 until Saturday, December 7, 2002.