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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
ONASSIS
at the Novello

THE A-LISTERS
By JOHN NATHAN

  Robert Lindsay and Lydia Leonard/ Ph: Tristram Kenton

The West End has never been a meritocracy. There are good out-of-town shows that never receive the transfer they deserve, while bad shows are often shoehorned into venues more in hope of success than expectation.
 
Martin Sherman’s adaptation of Peter Evans’ Aristotle Onassis biography is set on Onassis' yacht and sails close to the latter category. And after getting decidedly unenthusiastic reviews when the show premiered at Chichester earlier this year, you wonder just how bad reviews for an out-of-town tryout have to be to stop plans for a West End transfer.
 
With a draw as big as Robert Lindsay playing the title role, the answer appears to be pretty bad. But you can see the logic. A star of one of Britain’s most popular sitcoms (in which he plays opposite fellow West End regular Zoë Wanamaker), Lindsay was always going to guarantee producers box-office business. And any play populated with A-listers from modern history, including the eponymous Greek tycoon, former first lady Jackie Kennedy (Lydia Leonard) and the diva in Onassis’ life, Maria Callas (Anna Francolini), is bound to generate curiosity.
 
But for all the charisma summoned by Lindsay to play this larger-than-life, richer-than-God tycoon, anyone with less than an obsessive interest in Onassis and the conspiracy theories that surround him will find Nancy Meckler’s production a drag. 
 
The allusions to Greek tragedy are both inevitable and predictable. Onassis’ coterie of sycophants and assistants serve as chorus and narrators. They draw a cat’s cradle of connections that places Onassis in a pantheon of demigods. What airport books often call a web of intrigue connects Marilyn Monroe, Mafia boss Sam Giancana, labour racketeer Jimmy Hoffa and of course John and Bobby Kennedy, to name but a few. 
 
Fascinating theories are revealed, the most startling of which is that Bobby Kennedy was murdered by Onassis, partly because Onassis believed he was responsible for scuppering his oil deal with the Saudis; partly because Bobby was a barrier to Onassis marrying John Kennedy’s widow Jackie; but mainly because Onassis hated Bobby’s guts.
 
Much of this is set out as exposition in the form lectures. The lesson of the best biographical plays, however – from Schiller’s Don Carlos to Peter Morgan’s triumphant Frost/Nixon – is that events need to be shown rather than described. This is hard to do if the action is anchored on the deck of a yacht.
 
Backed by a singing, bouzouki-playing ensemble, the vocally sonorous though physically slight Lindsay breaks into a lot of Zorba-style dancing. He has Onassis’ bouffant hair, and there are flashes of anger, ego and perhaps most revealingly, class insecurity. Yet strangely the performance peaks when Lindsay's Onassis subtly mimics Bobby Kennedy while describing their White House confrontation during the assassinated president’s wake. Here, Lindsay manages to inhabit both characters while never leaving the title.
 
But again, this intriguing moment of 20th century history – like the mooted meeting between Onassis and the PLO that is said to have sealed Bobby’s fate – is described rather than dramatized. All of which begs the question, what is the point of a dramatization that lacks drama? The answer to which is, very little.
 


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