Tread the Boards Theatre
Roddy McCorley Society, Glen Road, Belfast, and on tour.
This is a strange sort of one-man show, essentially an enacted biography, but one made with passion and commitment.
John Travers plays actor and comedian Robin Williams, and his characterisation is a compelling feat of masterful acting technique. He bursts onto the stage in classic Mork-as-earth-dweller striped t-shirt and rainbow braces, and for fully two hours he guides us through the highs and lows of the life and career of the troubled subject.
The production depends entirely on Travers’ playing – design contributions are limited to costume and a very few props, and lighting and staging are minimal. At this venue, it was lights on or off.
The script takes us from point to point through Williams’ early life, schooling, college years, his failed attempts at studying political science and welding, (yes, welding) his enrolment in the Julliard School, with Christopher Reeve, the future Superman, and ultimately to his breakthrough as a stand up comedian on the West Coast.
There are occasional wrong notes that miss the US vernacular, God’s weight is given in stones, not pounds, and Williams buys petrol for his car, not gas. But there are laughs aplenty, and Travers engages directly with the audience at every chance.
The second act is a darker journey. Williams has huge success, first as Mork in Happy Days / Mork and Mindy, and then in films, but he has gargantuan drink and drug problems, and a raging sex addiction. This does provide much humour – Williams’s schoolboyish enthusiasm for sex manages to be troubling and quite endearing at the same time, and Travers’ playing of the sexual encounters is very funny.
But it is also the source of much of the dysfunction in his personal life, and we are witnesses as he serially humiliates his long-suffering wife Valerie, public scandal and STIs coming with his philandering.
Eventually depression takes hold and when diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Williams takes his own life. However the play leaves us on an up note – in the afterlife he is reunited with his parents, with his departed friends John Belushi and Christopher Reeve, and he achieves something not unlike inner peace.
There can be no overstating the achievement of John Travers’ performance. Vocally, he is perfect – when you shut your eyes, you’d swear it was Williams on the stage. His physical tics, his manic energy, his style of movement, all look just like Robin Williams doing a stand up gig. There is no doubt he has studied hours of footage to nail this characterisation so completely and convincingly, and credit for shaping this performance should also go to writer / director Kieron Magee.
There are issues with the script though – at its current length, it is too long buy a half hour. While Magee has done an excellent job of giving us the full sweep of Williams’ life, there are beats in this story we could miss. In addition, by the time we get to the emotional collapses and the chronic addictions and the depression that characterise Williams late years, we have been accustomed to his flippancy about such matters, and this flippancy means the crisis lacks jeopardy.
It is as if we have not been introduced to Robin Williams when he’s just being Robin Williams, and not performing for us. So the critical moments in his slide into depression and ultimately his suicide seem to lack emotional traction. We hear accounts of the deaths of his parents and close friend Reeves, but these are prosaic tragedies, the kinds of upset that we all suffer in a life. Given the character we have come to know over the previous two hours, it is difficult to appreciate how they might have had the devastating impact ascribed to them in the play.
That said, our appreciation of Williams’ serious mental health problems is not hampered. By the final scenes he is wracked with paranioa and self loathing as his neurological condition destroys his mind. It is a grim end for a genial talent so gifted with a mercurially quick mind.
At the curtain, John Travers took a well-earned ovation. This is an actor operating at the height of his powers and delivering a powerful, well-crafted performance, along with laughs and tears in plenty.
Art Mac Cláir