Made for and with Paul Jesson, this one-man play by Richard Nelson overlaps fact and fiction to stirring effect.

By: Apr. 12, 2024
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Review: AN ACTOR CONVALESCING IN DEVON, Hampstead Theatre Sometimes reality and drama overlap so much that it can be hard to tell where one finishes and another starts. 

Prolific US writer Richard Nelson’s latest play was specifically written for and with his friend Paul Jesson in mind. An Actor Convalescing In Devon tells the story of an actor who (like Jesson) is diagnosed with oral cancer, undergoes chemotherapy and has part of his jaw removed. On a train to spend a weekend with his friend in Devon, the unnamed man recalls his life and work and the final days of his partner and fellow thespian Michael.

There are some notable parallels between this work and Ivo van Hove’s Opening Night. The former’s press night coincided with news of the latter’s early closing (due to run until July 27, it will now end on May 28). Both van Hove and Nelson unashamedly plunge the audience into the world of theatre and the life of an actor on the edge: while Sheridan Smith’s character fights against her director, producer and a script she dislikes, Jesson’s is overwhelmed by the mountain of memories and feelings that rush at him like a pack of hungry cats, each fervently asking for attention.

The recollections are broad and deep, delving as far back as childhood and rarely settling for long or in any sequential order. The progression of the digressions come thick and fast: one minute, a cracker of a gag about a man unwilling to give away his books until he has told the story of each one, the next a sad story about how a friend survived the pandemic only to later die of a heart attack. The scattergun approach to storytelling reflects the inner turmoil of our narrator better than any exposition could.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

This may all sound depressing and, looking back at my notes, it really should have been. There’s something in the text and Jesson’s upbeat timbre, though, that constantly picks our hearts up off the floor and allows us if not exactly hope then at least a solid sense of settling and contentment for where we are. Even with his protagonist in the final decades of life and having been dealt an unlucky hand by fate, Nelson’s tale remains chipper with no mentions of self harm or one-way trips to Switzerland. “It is what it is” he seems to be saying and looking back at a life filled with Shakespeare and friends is a pleasure in and of itself. 

All this is relayed in the simplest of settings with only two wooden chairs, a travel bag and a couple of books to help carry Jesson on his journey through this play. Like the staging, Clarissa Brown’s direction is a bare bones affair, throwing in subtle offstage music and chatter only to set the scene or move our anonymous protagonist on from one set of musings to the next. 

The closing lines leave us on something of an upstroke as we are presented with a statement then a question. Once more, the bard is quoted (this time from A Winter’s Tale): “dear life redeems you”; it as sweet a sentence as any he wrote. This is followed by a thought to ponder on the way out: “an ambassador for all those who can’t speak. Isn’t that an actor?”

An Actor Convalescing In Devon continues at Hampstead Theatre until 11 May.

Photo credit: The Other Richard


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