The classic one-man or one-woman show is a perk for the ageing actor. Misty-eyed recollections of an industrial town childhood, a well-honed set of anecdotes about Larry and Johnny, a few highlights from the stage hits with plenty of Shakespeare — a song even — and everyone goes home happy. But this time something is wrong. Edward Petherbridge has the stories, the mellifluous tones and the pedigree. But people keep butting in: a German brain doctor who claims to be lecturing on Petherbridge’s delusions, his Romanian cleaner who also seems to be a professor of Shakespeare, and Olivier himself, sporting the remains of his Othello make-up. And the actors keep losing their footing on the strangely tilted stage. Everything is out of kilter.
My Perfect Mind — returning to the Young Vic for a second run and directed by Kathryn Hunter — is devised by Told By An Idiot. Their physical theatre genius makes an unlikely combination with the talents of Edward Petherbridge, who played Peter Wimsey on television and acted with Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company. Told By An Idiot co-founder Paul Hunter plays a long list of characters alongside Petherbridge, specialising in a series of "borderline offensive” accents and very silly physical jokes. Petherbridge, amidst the chaos, tells the story of his visit to New Zealand to play King Lear. Following the first rehearsal he had a stroke which left him temporarily paralysed on one side. He never got to play Lear, but he could not shake off the part he had spent so long learning.
Petherbridge finds his own life entwined with his role, Lear’s loss of identity — “I fear I am not in my perfect mind” - becoming his own. The double act with Hunter, who plays among other parts his Fool, touchingly opens up his past including the stroke his mother suffered just before his own birth. It also gleefully deconstructs the one-man show — skewering actors, the avant-garde, the Belarus Free Theatre, New Zealand, psychiatry, Shakespeare and anything else within range.
My Perfect Mind is an inspired fusion of styles, and brings a light but inventive touch to a story that should have been anything but funny. Instead, it is hilarious, with Paul Hunter as Olivier offering menacing, gnomic advice to young actors one of many highlights. It also achieves moments of real depth, not least when Petherbridge repeats Inca chants from his role in Peter Schaffer’s landmark The Royal Hunt of the Sun. For a brief moment the legendary 1964 production flickers back to life before our eyes. My Perfect Mind achieves the perfect balance, where the glory of playing the King comes with the inevitable casting as the Fool.
My Perfect Mind by Kathryn Hunter, Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge runs at The Young Vic, 66 The Cut, SE1 8LZ until Saturday 27 September. Start times 7.45pm Monday-Saturday and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Tickets £19.50 (£10 concessions). To book call 020 7922 2922 or visit the Young Vic website. Production image by Manuel Harlan. Londonist saw the production on a complimentary ticket.