Review – Rossiter – Hope Street Theatre

Toby Harris as Leonard Rossiter

IT is October 6th 1984 and we are in a dressing room at London’s Lyric Theatre, partway through a revival of Joe Orton’s Loot. Leonard Rossiter, in costume for Inspector Truscott, stumbles to a chair and collapses. The call is heard; “Mr Rossiter to the stage…” but Mr Rossiter doesn’t come. He is dead in his chair.

So begins Jim Blythe’s affectionate portrait play ‘Rossiter’, and then the actor rises from the chair and begins to reminisce. Toby Harris lets the words do the work, avoiding any direct vocal characterisation (apart from the occasional throwaway quote) and his physical makeup could equally well pass for David Suchet’s Poirot, minus the moustache wax.

The play, such as it is, presents as a series of anecdotes rather than a dramatised monologue. It’s almost like one of those ‘An Audience With’ affairs, charting the actor’s early interest in theatre, through a distinguished and varied stage career to the more lucrative but limiting television work of the ‘70s. It’s a ‘warts removed’ rather than a warts and all depiction, told very much from Rossiter’s own perspective, and much of his personal life and ability to rub people up the wrong way is swept under the carpet.

What does come across brilliantly in both Blythe’s script and Harris’s performance is Rossiter’s prodigious ability to commit lines to memory and his incredibly driven work ethic. Sadly it seems that the very drive that kept him in the spotlight so continuously also contributed to his early demise. But the piece observes that for a man whose life was so steeped in theatre it was only right that he should depart in mid performance.

There are some awkward gear shifts in the writing as it occasionally slips from first to third person and back but all in all Rossiter is a charming, if slightly one-sided, account of the life of one of Liverpool’s most prolific showbiz exports and a much loved character of both stage and screen. Even for those who were aware of the breadth of the man’s output, it makes for impressive listening to hear the catalogue of work set out in under an hour of biographical monologue. It’s surprising that the tale of such a very theatrical man can be told with so little actual theatricality.

Star rating: 3 stars

Review by Nigel Smith