Review: Conversation with John Lahr


(Review published on Remote Goat 9/2/12)

What better way to spend a cold winter’s evening than in the cosy company of two gentlemen of the world, the one prompting the other to tell revealing stories of the great and the good? For one night only, Don Campbell, a renowned psychoanalyst, interviews John Lahr, the legendary theatre critic of The New Yorker and biographer of Joe Orton, the latter establishing the Islington connection, for it was here that the playwright lived and was tragically killed by his jealous lover, Kenneth Halliwell. The literal backdrop to the interview is an exhibition of library book-jackets, doctored into collages by Joe and Kenneth, an act of supreme mischief which resulted in their imprisonment for six months (this can be seen until 25 February 2012).

John Lahr is a man of words and needs little help from his interlocutor to pour forth some poignant memories of his upbringing, his father being Bert Lahr, the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz, and as miserable a character offstage as he was ebullient on. The discrepancy between public and private personas forms a theme tonight, and Lahr tells us fascinating stuff about Elaine Stritch and Woody Allen, both of whom, he says, are quite different in reality to the tough-talking broad and weakling-paranoiac characters they habitually play. Lahr also talks knowledgeably about Tennessee Williams and his work (a biography is forthcoming), Roseanne Barr (whom he thinks, like all great comics, is obsessively ‘phallic’) and Bill Hicks, who once wrote him a 35-page letter explaining himself, which formed the basis of one of Lahr’s many wonderful in-depth profiles of great performers, writers and directors.

Lahr’s observations of Orton are acute and fascinating, and the actual presence of the playwright’s sister in the audience brings his ghost into the room. All in all, it is a deep pleasure to hear about stars who genuinely deserve accolades for their talent, drive and abilities to transform our lives for the better, rather than the hollow ‘celebrities’ whom we receive on ubiquitous media drip-feed these days.

Islington Museum is to be applauded for hosting evenings of this calibre. It has many free talks on offer too, and is clearly a flourishing cultural centre. Keep your eyes peeled and your ears pricked for the museum’s programme: this is the sort of event that makes living in London a brighter experience.

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