October 01, 1990

One of a Kind

Filed under: Archive,Comedy


An Evening With

Peter Ustinov

Festival Theatre

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Peter Ustinov may not quite be a polymath but he’ll do until one comes along. His accomplishments are extraordinary. In addition to his work as an actor he has distinguished himself as a director in theatre and opera , as a playwright, travel writer and autobiographer. He can  speak a dozen languages and has been honoured with Academy Awards, Emmys, Grammys, a chaise in the French Academy and, recently, a knighthood.

A life of such digression makes him a splendid conversationalist. In fact his one person show suits him better than almost anything else. Watching his movies you often get the impression that he found his acting roles tedious. He himself acknowledged his Nero in Quo Vadis is Roman ham, in Viva Max he is surprisingly undistinguished, even his Poirot is stodgy. It is as if he finds the demands of a single role uninteresting and, given the lines he often has to deliver, unrewarding.

But alone on stage for two and half hours, his own scenarist and cast of thousands, Ustinov is a very different proposition. A few galumphing bars of Peter and the Wolf and there he is, apart from a touch of self parody in the burgundy velvet jacket he is inscrutably  deadpan. Thank you for the warmth of your welcome he says , assuming the voice of one his favourite victims, the unctuous television presenter . Other comedians mock the vocabulary of caring and sharing but Ustinov is toxic. When he utters words they stop buzzing and fall to the floor.

Narrating  events in the life of someone closely resembling

the author, Ustinov’s is an unreliable memoir, a comic bildungsroman which begins in utero in Leningrad and leads to London-” I travelled with my parents as extra weight.” He describes his miraculous birth and the acquisition of language. His first word, he tells us, was Oxo, indicating a family preoccupation with beef products. When his mother first travelled by train to London she thought every station on the line was called Bovril.

Then comes formal education. An exclusive London prep school first, of which his earliest recollection is seeing a portrait of Christ leading a boy scout by the hand. Put it down to my foreign extraction, he sighs with exquisite irony, but I was pretty sceptical from the beginning. Grammar schooling at Westminster is despatched with a string of anecdotes about a headmaster with a mouth like a cathedral and a droll description of the son of Von Ribbentrop on schoolboy army manoeuvres. Later when Ustinov takes up the subject of his time in the military he rolls gentle little grenades everywhere. Army rituals, toothless NCO’s and blithering generals of no particular distinction all get a swathe of derision.

His tales of the theatre are even more fun. At drama school he was lukewarm about American Method techniques.” We all had to select an animal as a kind a persona, he recalls, one young South African woman was a springbok, I was a salamander, I had a relatively restful term.” There it all is. The slight raising of the eyebrow, the languid descending curve of the ironic phrase. No one can match Ustinov in delivering a line.

Or for precision in mimicry. He screws his face into a pusillanimous prune and he is Charles Laughton, a peering glance is Alec Guinness, pursed lips epitomise Gielguid, a faintly mincy blinking of the eyes and a half-turn and he is not only Olivier, but Olivier on a jittery horse in Spartacus. American film moguls fascinate Ustinov as do the rich roccoco flourishes of American speech. He glories in them – whether from the mouths of motorcycle cops, brain-damaged Presidents, or directors like Mervyn LeRoy whose Bronx adenoids are perfectly recreated giving a note to Ustinov during filming – “The way I see Nero. This is the kind of guy plays with himself, nights.”

An Evening with Peter Ustinov includes material familiar to devotees of his TV special, An Audience with same. Set pieces such as his impression of his mother meeting Queen Mary at Covent Garden, conducted entirely in subverbal regal wittering, only gain from repetition as do Ustinov’s brilliant musical parodies of German lieder, flamenco,neopolitan folk song, or anything else that comes to the attention of his laser wit.

What distinguishes Ustinov is not only his genuine ease with an audience but the clarity and precision he brings to the stage. We do not conspire with him against easy targets, it is not an exercise in comic platitude. Plenty of performers are comic and as many are charming but very few combine them with such intelligence.

“One of a Kind” The Adelaide Review, No.80,  September, 1990, p.27-8.  Reprinted The Sydney Review, October, 1990, p.20.

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