Walking back to my car from the theatre, I pass the plaque commemorating Charles Laughton's birth at the Victoria Hotel. Furthermore, he was the guest of honour when the Odeon Cinema, now the Stephen Joseph Theatre, opened in 1936. So, if anything, it was a somewhat belated tribute to the great actor when in 2012, the 50th anniversary of his death, Chris Monks commissioned Roger Osborne to write Laughton.
The result, if a trifle over-long, with some passages of moral philosophy that fail to catch fire, is an intelligent, sympathetic and often amusing portrait of Laughton at three periods of his life. Osborne is well skilled in the comically barbed exchanges of the show business marriage, but equally shows a wide-ranging sympathy for all characters except a couple of entrenched American Catholic priests! Above all, the figure Osborne presents is totally reconcilable with what we know of the complex nature of Charles Laughton.
Osborne's Laughton is a man unwilling just to accept the celebrity of a screen monster. The long Act 1 finds him in California in 1946 (the most elaborate of Tim Meacock's sets, delightfully detailed) investigating the character and philosophy of Galileo while working with Bertolt Brecht on the English version of his play. As he identifies with Galileo, so he does with King Lear in Act 2 on the North Yorkshire Moors in 1959, about to undertake his momentous Stratford season as Lear and Bottom.
As a teenager, I saw Laughton's Lear and can vouch for the excited anticipation (of either triumph or disaster), but Osborne, forgivably, suggests the performance was more widely praised than I remember! Act 3, played without an interval from Act 2, finds Laughton back in California shortly before his death in 1962.
Charles Laughton and the fiery, often eccentric actress Elsa Lanchester were married for 33 years, still working together in his last year, but hardly enjoying a harmonious relationship, owing, at least in part, to his intimate friendships with young men. Osborne and director Chris Monks sympathetically tease out the nature of the marriage; after all the young men and all the outbursts, she's the one who remains.
Vincent Franklin and Kacey Ainsworth are excellent as Charles and Elsa, making nothing of the problem of impersonation versus characterisation. Both are effective re-creations without being look-alikes, he hinting at the great man's voice and grand manner, she looking as though she could reprise her shocking appearance in The Brides of Frankenstein at any moment, both creating convincing and believable characters.
In Osborne's rather formulaic structure, each act contains a Catholic priest and one of Laughton's young friends. Barnaby Sax neatly differentiates the young men, bringing out the ambiguity of Raymond, the first and most substantial of the three parts, while Christopher Wright enjoys himself – and entertains us – as the hiker-priest in Act 2, even if the other two are pretty much ciphers.