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Burton's Last Call

4 starsReviewed by Richard Stamp
Underground Venues & Arts Centre Studio
Underground Venues: 7 Jul 4:30pm to 5:30pm, 11 Jul 1pm to 2pm, 18 Jul 1pm to 2pm, 21 Jul 1pm to 2pm
Arts Centre Studio: 12 Jul 6pm to 7pm, 20 Jul 7:30pm to 8:30pm

In a lonely dressing room in a Broadway theatre, superstar actor Richard Burton shares some reminiscences, sinks some vodka, and waits for his call to the stage. Inspired by Burton’s own writings, this hour-long monologue takes in Burton’s upbringing, his career, and of course his notorious love life – but also sheds some light on his private tribulations, and the demons which stalked him from within.

George Telfer has earned an enviable reputation for his one-man shows, and – as I’ve come to expect – seemed unshakeably comfortable in his role as Burton.  Although he’s on his own, he somehow fills the stage; a lot of the time he’s sitting, but he’s never sitting still.  There’s humour of course, and a smattering of showbiz anecdotes, but it’s a compellingly straightforward style of theatre; one which trusts its audience to engage with a character, and let the story come gradually through.

And Richard Burton’s story is certainly worth telling.  On one level, it represents the ultimate triumph of merit over disadvantage: a working-class child from the Welsh valleys, Burton’s talent propelled him to a status beyond most people’s imagining.  At one point, we learn, he could afford to turn down a third-of-a-million-dollar Hollywood deal to perform Look Back In Anger instead.  But there’s a vulnerable side to the narrative too, a realisation that his choices weren’t all the right ones.  For me, the most touching moment came when he spoke of Dylan Thomas – and the way he might have used the riches he’d chosen not to earn.

Despite all these undoubted positives, I did feel the script left a few obvious avenues unexplored.  Burton’s recollections of his childhood were a little too bluff for me, lacking the emotional intensity I was looking for; I never quite got a sense of what it would be like to transition from near-poverty into the glittering world of his later life.  And while he shares many tales about his wife Elizabeth Taylor, I left without an understanding of what had drawn him back for a fateful second marriage – a marriage which, the script seems to suggest, did him far more harm than good.

Ultimately though, I was won over by the irresistible majesty of Telfer’s portrayal.  In one bizarre passage, he performs the famous soliloquy from Henry V backwards – and though the scrambled words were meaningless, I still felt my hackles and my heartbeat rise.  He brings a sense of real integrity to his dissolute Burton, ably conveying an artistic honour which survived alcoholism, illness, and divorce.  It’s an ambiguous but inspiring story; and I’m genuinely grateful to Telfer for bringing it to me.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Buxton 2013.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.