Going it alone

  • Themes: Culture, Theatre

It is the tension between lived experience and potentially thrilling dramatic invention that makes the one-person show such a potent and electrifying means of entertainment.

Australian actor Sheridan Harbridge performs during a media preview of the one-woman play, Prima Facie.
Australian actor Sheridan Harbridge performs during a media preview of the one-woman play, Prima Facie. Credit: Australian Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

If you had ventured to the West End last year to see a new staging of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya starring Andrew Scott, you may have been surprised to realise that Scott was not just playing the eponymous Vanya, but also his pompous brother-in-law Serebryakov, the idealistic doctor Astrov and the impoverished landowner Telegin, in addition to the beautiful, bored Yelena, the slighted Sonya and Vanya’s mother Maria. In Simon Stephens’s adaptation, simply named Vanya, Scott played all the characters, flitting between them with only a few basic props and changes of demeanour and accent to differentiate between the characters. As one reviewer remarked, ‘What results is someone who is equally in complete control and on the verge of a breakdown.’

Scott won great acclaim for his tour de force performance(s), and received the Evening Standard theatre award late last year for his stunning display of theatrical pyrotechnics. He had previously worked with Stephens on the 2008 monologue Sea Wall, allowing him earlier experience of what it was like to carry the entire show by himself, but this was a challenge on another scale entirely. Yet even as Scott left the stage, bound, one hopes, for a long rest before the opportunity to star opposite other actors in his next production – I continually hope for him to appear opposite his Fleabag co-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge in what would surely be the definitive staging of Private Lives – he seems to have started a trend for one-man, or one-woman, shows.

Eddie Izzard may not have been chosen to stand as a Labour candidate for Brighton Pavilion, but has instead headed to the Greenwich House Theater in New York in a new solo performance of Hamlet. Perhaps mindful of the narrow escape that they might have had in their political ambitions, Izzard has been praised for delivering a nuanced and fascinating reading of every part in the play, flitting between, appropriately, ‘tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene undividable, or poem unlimited.’ Nor is this Izzard’s first rodeo, having won excellent reviews for a similar display of pyrotechnics last year in a West End staging of Great Expectations. Not to be outdone, Succession’s Sarah Snook has taken on all the roles in a new adaptation of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Theatre Royal Haymarket by Kip Williams, in which she will interact with herself via the medium of live video. As she quipped in one recent interview, ‘I realise I’m in constant danger of upstaging myself.’

Although the Wildean paradox of this remark is appropriate, given the plethora of witty characters Snook is about to portray, it also hints at a potential issue with the current vogue for a single actor appearing on stage, namely that they have no co-stars to act opposite. There is, therefore, the possibility that their solo presence can either seem gimmicky or monotonous, or, at worst, unintentionally bathetic. A truly great actor can manage to switch between characters in a split second with only the most token of costume changes, but a less talented, or confident, performer could easily end up becoming helplessly adrift. The result could, at worst, turn into a real-life example of the theatrical farce so brilliantly lampooned by Michael Frayn in his classic comedy Noises Off.  Perhaps some ambitious actor will have the idea of appearing in that great play by themselves; if they do take on that challenge, all one can say, with utmost sincerity and just a tinge of malice, is ‘break a leg.’

Still, it is not hard to see why solo productions have become the new theatrical fad. After all, there have always been barnstorming one man (or one woman) shows in theatre, ranging from Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine, which was recently revived with Sheridan Smith in the lead, to Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Some of these plays have been closer to opportunities for a distinguished classical actor to show off their virtuoso prowess than especially original pieces of theatre in their own right. One thinks of the acclaimed one-man productions of A Christmas Carol put on stage by the likes of Patrick Stewart and Simon Callow, the late Christopher Plummer’s award-winning work on the Broadway stage in the show Barrymore, about the actor John Barrymore, or Antony Sher’s appearance in the Primo Levi adaptation Primo. Yet Jodie Comer’s success in the one-woman legal drama Prima Facie, which has now been adapted into both a novel and a film, indicates that there can be considerably more nuanced plays for a single performer, too, far removed from the temptation to showboat and, in some cases, shout a lot by oneself.

It is probable that we have the chaos wrought by Covid to thank (or to blame) for the rise in such shows. After the theatres all went dark at the beginning of 2020, enterprising producers and directors swiftly realised that an economic and satisfying way of staging drama without the demands of a large and socially distanced cast would be to find scripts that either were only ever designed to be performed by one actor, or alternatively, with a clever and economic adaptation, could be done in that fashion. These included everything from Ralph Fiennes in David Hare’s Covid monologue Beat the Devil to, of all people, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man Broadway show with songs, in which The Boss disarmingly declared that ‘Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he had absolutely no experience. I made it all up.’

It is this tension between lived experience and potentially thrilling dramatic invention that makes the one-person show such a potent and electrifying means of entertainment. Especially if played out in an intimate venue, there is a complicity between the audience and the single actor on stage that makes the experience far more compelling and unusual than a conventional play could ever hope to be. If it ever became the norm – and one thinks of cost-cutting producers hoping wistfully that it might – then it might lose this charge, but its presence in contemporary theatre is infinitely preferable to any number of anodyne musicals or strained issue-based dramas.

And it shows no signs of disappearing, either. The great American actor Billy Crudup will be taking to the West End next month in Harry Clarke, a show about a confidence trickster in which he will play 19 separate parts. Crudup, clearly relishing the opportunity to join the ranks of his solo peers, has declared that ‘West End theatregoers are some of the most discerning, intelligent and hungry audiences in the world.’ Flattery, Mr Crudup, will get you a long way, but the ability to see a fine actor pull off multiple roles with virtuoso skill? That’s what we’re really paying top-whack ticket prices for.


Alexander Larman