By Danielle Farrow
Rachel Roberts, one of the wives of Rex Harrison, was an award-winning actress in her own right, but issues in her marriage and her life in general did not make for a happy ending. In this riveting production, Helen Griffin – co-writer with Dave Ainsworth – brings back to life this talented and often filthy-mouthed Welsh actress who found herself in glittering A-lister Hollywood and in a world with which she simply could not deal, no matter where she lived.
Roberts’ problems with her own self-image and worth, despite her talent, along with her love for Harrison and her addiction to alcohol are here presented with a certain sharp style and – at first – in a very humorous manner. The comedy is not only in witty observances, though, it is in drunken antics and there lies the pain of the piece already. From the start it is the defeated Roberts we see and her bravado and times of hope are all the more poignant for this.
Griffin embodies Roberts with in-your-face scorn, vulnerability, a certain self-awareness and a real sense of longing. Having allowed the audience plenty of laughs at her expense, she will lash out or flow into fragility, always keeping her observers with her and working on them mentally and emotionally.
The stage setting is Roberts’ home, with trunks and cases strewn, a couch for drunken sprawling, a mysterious pair of men’s shoes, alcohol stashed and a stuffed toy or two in sight, along with awards, which have other associations for the suicidal actress. Lighting and sound create different places during the piece, varying atmosphere and mood suitably, in this taut production directed by Peter Doran.
Torch Theatre Company’s Who’s Afraid of Rachel Roberts? creates a life journey, with use of smooth flashbacks, that hurts even as it entertains and Helen Griffin becomes Roberts in her performance, rather than simply portraying her. We feel we are with a real person, and engage with Roberts’ longing and pain more fully because of this – not a wholly enjoyable experience, but an insight worth having.