[2008073] Playing Burton

Playing Burton (FringeTIX)

Josh Richards @ Holden Street Theatres (The Arch)

2:00pm, Sun 9 Mar 2008

It’s a hot day. Stinking hot. It’s also my birthday! Yay. And, as usual for my birthday, I’ve carefully selected a bunch of shows that I reckon will be winners from beginning to end. Now, this rarely – and by “rarely”, I mean “never” – works out well; there was one particularly solemn year where most of my “choice” selections were shit-on-a-stick, with the finale being one of the most embarrassing shows I’ve been witness to. But every year, I hope for more; every year, I’m convinced I’ve got it right.

If anything, I figured that Playing Burton was the weak link in this year’s lineup; how wrong – how very wrong I was.

So – hot day. We’re in The Arch at Holden Street – I suspect that’s because Richards (who, as the title suggests, is playing Richard Burton) chain-smokes his way through the performance. But The Fear that The Arch will be sweltering is short-lived – it’s lovely inside, and the puny air conditioner does a great job until it starts relentlessly dripping onto the floor during a quiet passage. The stage is empty, save for a chair and small table with a bottle of vodka, a glass, and an ashtray. The lights dim, and a recording of the news announcement regarding Burton’s death is played.

Richards appears, and he is Burton, coolly listening to his own radio obit. And when he speaks, beginning the tale of his life, he commands respect with a forceful punch. And his tale is wonderfully engaging, and beautifully told – it’s all in the contrast of his voice, from that low growl to a room-bloating boom. Time is marked by his demolition of the vodka, which disappears at an exponential rate.

The last ten minutes or so are riveting – speech becomes slurred, movements imprecise. You know the end is near when he falls over, drunk, and only regains his feet after a long pause. Further movements are timid, except where the bottle is concerned.

Now, I’m no Burton aficionado, but I’ll be buggered if he wasn’t in that theatre. Richards is magic in this production, with a massive presence in this small theatre, and utterly convincing. Far from being the weak link of the day, Playing Burton was a major highlight.

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