Review: ABOUT LEO, Jermyn Street Theatre

By: Sep. 08, 2018
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Review: ABOUT LEO, Jermyn Street Theatre

Review: ABOUT LEO, Jermyn Street Theatre Jermyn Street Theatre kick off their new season with the world premiere of Alice Allemano's About Leo. Aspiring journalist Eliza Prentice (Eleanor Wyld) lands in Mexico, bright-eyed and armed with pesky curiosity, pursuing her quest to interview ageing artist Leonora Carrington (Phoebe Pryce in her younger version, Susan Tracy in her elder). Eliza knows that the woman notoriously doesn't grant interviews - especially when they're about her former lover Max Ernst (Nigel Whitmey) - but she hopes to gain her favours with her persistence and singular point of view.

Moving from the present day to Mexico and France in the 1930s, the play details the tempestuous affair between Carrington and Ernst. As directed by Michael Oakley, it juggles different levels that interweave present and past, becoming a visually engaging reflection on life, love, and art.

Where Eliza is safely tied to her idea of Leo's relationship with Ernst, the elderly woman gradually demystifies the affair and, whilst confirming the fiery and unapologetic passion, she points out multiple times how she didn't end when her relationship came to a stop. With plenty of feminist hints, Leo schools Eliza on her duties as a younger generation, pushing her to take the reins in her own journey and forget her fears.

While the two women talk, nightmarish visions of an anthropomorphic bird and horse (individually standing for Ernst and Carrington and played by the respective actors) invade the stage briefly generally before introducing the flashbacks. Mundane scenes from the lovers' lives play out: they discuss their communal situation, art, books, the impending doom of World War II, and paint a bohemian picture of reckless love.

Tracy's performance is rich in hue, retaining the clear and vibrant essence of Carrington as an artist. When confronted by Eliza on her being Ernst's muse, she stresses the fact that she didn't have any time to be that as she was too busy learning to be a painter and establishing herself in a man's world. This is one of the fils rouges that seem to run across Allemano's piece: Leo sees herself in Eliza and when the latter opens up about her troubles and fears, she jumps at the occasion and reveals her past bringing out her own experiences in order to help the young writer.

Suddenly, her relationship with Ernst becomes secondary to the story of a woman who came into her own. "Souls are very important and you have to own your own" she tells Eliza as she explains how her affair shaped her as both an artist and a person but didn't define her. She pours out a life of artistic struggle on Eliza, spurring her to take a chance and live by her example. However, when confronted with the externalisation of the millennial fear of failure and the unfeasibility of leading a certain lifestyle today, Leo brushes it off like any old lady would.

Whitmey and Pryce are excellently balanced as Carrington and Ernst, the actor even vaguely resembling the surrealist. They bicker and teach each other lessons on love and art; Ernst's slightly patronising attitude largely comes to a halt when met with Leo's mind. Although Pryce is a tad declamatory at times, she and Tracy are strikingly paired together, conveying the same eagerness to live a full life without the constraints of a strict society that only keeps them behind.

As the young journalist who hasn't quite found her path yet, Wyld is delightfully hyper. She's the fresh breath of modern youth and hope that helps the play rise from merely static flashbacks. She leads the conversation and takes charge, then gives it back in a pull-and-release battle with Carrington.

A massive impact on the outcome of the show is due to the set and lighting designers, Erika Paola Rodriguez Egas and Amy Mae respectively. Rodriguez Egas places the action in a small kitchen, a massive white frame that gives onto it outlines the artists' studio and is the main portal between past and present. Mood lighting and sharp thunderous flashes determine the changes and help with Oakley's visual games, transporting the audience through time and space. About Leo certainly owns the correct spirit to set off the aptly named Rebels season.

About Leo runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until 29 September.

Photo credit: Robert Worman