Burton's Last Call

George Telfer is the boozey, hell-raising, womanising actor Richard Burton at Out To Lunch

The Black Box in Belfast is jam packed. I’ve rarely seen the main room so busy, and I don’t think they’ve come for the included-in-the-price-of-a-ticket pasta. It seems that there really is an appetite for dinner theatre in this city (though I suppose it depends on what time you have your dinner).

Richard Burton (here played by George Telfer) staggers onto the stage, half cut and already concerned that his talent is a curse. Warming to what must be a well worn theme, he is interrupted by noises off – his first stage call. He is visibly disquieted and reaches for the first of an ever replenishing tumbler of vodka. We’re off.

We find Burton back-stage, on Broadway no less, and preparing to assay his first turn as Dr Dysart in Equus, setting the play in 1976, some eight years before the actor’s death.

He’s in gregarious mood, engaging the crowd with a surprising line in 'end of the pier' back and forth. When somebody completes his line from Richard III, he snaps back, 'I’ve seen you on the telly – interference'. As he eulogises 'poetry and beer are the greatest things on earth – except women' he waits, exaggerating the moment; a satyr’s mask momentarily slipping over that of the tragedian.

Liz Taylor, of course, looms large in the narrative, as well as in Burton’s life, and this useful and constant comparison between their lives is the spine of the piece, which was also written by Telfer. Taylor's comfort, affluence and movie star looks and Burton, the pock-marked boy from Port Talbot.

'We all get the same amount of ice,' he says. 'Rich people get theirs in the summer; poor people get theirs in the winter.' Burton did get lucky though. Plucked from the Co-op by strait-laced acting coach Phillip Burton, whose name he borrowed, he was smuggled into an RAF school and on to Oxford so that he could 'have his chance'. ('We never passed out as officers. We just passed out.')

That Liz and Sybil (his first wife) both tried to kill themselves over Burton is mentioned in passing, and one gets the sense that the gravelly, hell-raising rogue spitting out aphorisms and salty asides as represented here is a much nicer proposition than the real Burton.

I’m reminded of last year’s Oliver Reed play and tonight’s Graham Chapman show (also starring George Telfer – the stamina of the man!) all of them hardcore boozers, and I wonder what the attraction is. Why do we like seeing biographical plays about alcoholic actors? Is it the thrill of schadenfreude? Watching these cinematic colossi hobbled by their own weaknesses?

Is it that if he’s rich enough, even a drunk’s adventures can be exciting and interesting? Or is there an illicit transgressive charge that comes from visiting the recent past and soaking up the drinking, smoking and philandering, the Mad Men frisson, that sees these bellowing thesps lionised as free-wheeling characters for the sort of behaviour that would get you locked out of the house?

Regardless, that Telfer’s Burton is such a likeable old cove, with his 'Celtic pessimism and a drop of vodka', is entirely down to the actor’s committed and powerful performance. Telfer is not physically like Burton, and the voice is nowhere near that actor’s famous stentorian growl, but he utterly inhabits the role, throwing back the vodka with relish (not a cocktail), barking and swearing and wobbling around the stage as he attempts to get from one pair of trousers to another.

It is bravura stuff and never more so than when he faultlessly delivers Burton's famous party piece, the show-stopping 'Cry God for Harry, England and St. George' speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V backwards. This is teased several times throughout the show but the full version, delivered to the rafters, richly deserves its round of applause.

As Burton receives his final call to the stage, it seems as though this is where we come in. He is prompted once again to wonder whether his talent – which he doesn’t understand and that threatens to devour him and everyone he loves – is a blessing or a curse. For the packed crowd here this afternoon, it’s quite obviously the latter.

Out To Lunch continues in the Black Box, Belfast until January 26.