REVIEW: The Dramatic Exploits of Edmund Kean at the Georgian Theatre Royal

Ian Hughes as Edmund Kean.

Dramatic performances don’t come much better than this. Ian Hughes has a fine acting pedigree that boasts over 10 years as a leading actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company; winner of the first Ian Charleson/Royal National Theatre Award for Best Actor; and a host of TV and film appearances that include Dr Who, Torchwood and Gavin & Stacey.

It is therefore wholly appropriate that his one-man show tells the story of Edmund Kean, one of the greatest actors that England has ever seen.

It was also a bonus to see the show in our own Georgian Theatre Royal which hosted the great actor between 1808 and 1812. Legend has it that the theatre’s manager and founder, Samuel Butler, spotted Kean’s talent and paid for his stagecoach ticket to take a job in London.

Years later, when Kean had made his fame and fortune, Kean repaid Butler’s kindness by returning to star for a few nights with the company in Richmond. His snuff box currently resides in the Theatre’s museum.

Ian Hughes’ well-crafted narrative begins when the determined but penniless Kean is in his early twenties, about to become a father and is walking to Swansea as a strolling player. You can sense the hardship and frustration of what would have been a thoroughly gruelling life with near starvation for the young, growing family – epitomised when Kean is portrayed begging a glass of milk for his heavily pregnant wife.

For many 19th-century actors, this remained their lot but, luckily for Kean, he got his break on the London stage of Drury Lane and attracted theatre-goers in their hordes. First appearing as Shylock, Kean went on to play all the big Shakespearian parts including Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello.

This brought enormous wealth and popularity for the ailing Drury Lane Theatre but also to Kean himself. His earnings were estimated at £150,000 in about 20 years – a staggering sum for the time.However, this wealth was soon squandered and Kean’s drinking and womanising cost him dearly with a notorious court case causing his devoted public to turn against him. It was accompanied by a rapid deterioration in his health, resulting in an early alcohol-induced death.

It is a real tale of ‘rags to riches and back again’ – hugely fascinating and wonderfully compelling. It was also magnificently performed by Ian Hughes who manages to balance the supreme arrogance of the man – driven by self-belief – against moments of aching poignancy, for instance when Kean’s eldest son dies on the very brink of his triumphant arrival on the London stage.

The script is peppered with wit and humour and Hughes manages to work in multiple characterisations, as well as a flavour of Kean’s own stage techniques that brought him something close to superstardom in Britain and the USA. A superbly simple set using JMW Turner paintings serves as a perfect dramatic backdrop.

Fine acting and a strong story meant that the Richmond audience were engrossed for the duration of the show. They willingly gave a standing ovation at the end of the evening and rightly so – this was first class entertainment.