Laurence Olivier and James Bond creator, Ian Fleming were two hugely fascinating and influential men in their respected fields.
So I was delighted to see them recreated on stage in Mark Burgess’ double bill, Heavens Of Invention, which opened last night at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre.
The night started with Larry. TV and stage actor Keith Drinkel combed his white hair to the side, put on a Garrick Club tie and glasses and gave us a rattling good 55-minute monologue of reminiscences.
It’s 1975 and Drinkel (looking and sounding more like Anthony Hopkins I thought,) as Larry, had got off his death bed to play Christian Szell, the Nazi dentist who terrorises Dustin Hoffman, in Marathon Man.
He’s setting out his props before giving us a diatribe on importance of acting with the right tools of the trade.
In-between we hear stories about some of his great performances, his wives, illnesses that plagued the latter part of his life and the horror of stage fright – which he only overcame after being forced to deliver a 20-minute speech in a play.
And there is a lot of name-dropping. Caine, Hoffman, Coward, Guinness, Gielgud, Zeferelli, Branagh, plus mentions of favourite roles (Archie Rice in The Entertainer) and productions (Shakespeare, naturally, gets a few mentions).
He gives us the familiar anecdote of when Hoffman, determined to show who was top dog on set, forced Larry to improvise during rehearsals, something that was an anathema to the great man.
Later Hoffman turned up looked unshaven and dishevelled because he was into The Method. “Dear boy,” said Olivier. “Why don’t you just try acting?”
The story jumps to 1983, just six years before his death, and he is about to bring the curtain down on his career. He whips old plays out of a desk to weigh down a case and they are a catalogue that exemplifies the versatility of Britain’s greatest actor.
Director Daniel Finlay keeps the two-act play zipping along with a good mix of actorish humour and glimpses into a life well lived.
Actress and director Louise Jameson may not have ever been a Bond bird but it’s clear she has an affection for England’s greatest playboy spy.
She directs the second story, The Man With The Golden Pen and it is as enthralling as 007 himself.
Set in Fleming’s beloved Goldeneye in Jamaica we meet a man about to leap off a precipice.
It’s 1952. “You see before you a man in crisis,” he laments. “Today I’m getting married and it’s scaring the hell out of me.”
Convinced he is about to be forced into growing up and putting away his wild, lascivious ways, Fleming has decided to write the ultimate spy novel so that his hero can continue to have the adventures he cannot.
By the second act, a decade and 40 million book sales later, we have been regaled about stories detailing Fleming’s own life including the problems casting for the film franchise.
After lengthy discussions a defeated Fleming left the choice up to Hollywood.
“Who have they come up with to play the eloquent, cultured, Old Etonian, naval commander?” says Fleming to the ghost of his creation. “A coffin polisher and former milkman who has ‘Scotland Forever’ tattooed on his forearm. I can only apologise.”
Michael Chance gives us a very charismatic, cynical and cavalier Fleming though it is hard to feel much sympathy for a character who seemingly lived such a hedonistic life.
Heavens Of Invention is an engrossing character study about two giants of English culture but its appeal is rather niche.
Both actors give engaging performances but Mark Burgess’ script doesn’t really offer a new insight into either men, whose lives have been previously well documented.
However, I found both stories immensely enjoyable – but would the public at large? I hope so.
Running until Saturday.