The Man Who Lived Twice (4 stars)

The Man Who Lived Twice

Photo: Eamonn McGoldrick

Stylish, striking and poignant study of 1930s dramatist Edward Sheldon and actor John Gielgud

For a few years in the early 20th century playwright Edward Sheldon was the toast of Broadway, with melodramas such as Romance and The Song of Songs notching up lengthy runs and inspiring movies with Garbo and Dietrich respectively. Crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, he withdrew Hughes-like to a penthouse apartment and began a new career as confidante to such theatrical leading lights as John Barrymore and Helen Hayes. Garry Robson’s fascinating play speculates on the meeting in 1936 between Sheldon and a youthful John Gielgud, the latter breaking Broadway box office records with his Hamlet but rather adrift in the Big Apple.

Paul Cunningham gives a striking performance as the dramatist, immobile for much of the play but evoking through richly nuanced inflection the charisma, humour, frankness and vulnerability that inspired such devotion and trust. Laurie Brown, too, is very moving as Gielgud, whose struggle with his sexuality is coaxed to the surface by the playwright. Alison Peebles’ production achieves a romantic, heightened atmosphere through stylised design, intermittent songs and the ingenious device of having Sheldon’s macaw Archie pass comment on the action, and while Robson’s text is wordy and occasionally expositional, its main theme, of hiding from oneself and the world, is poignantly, quietly brought into focus at the end.

Touring Scotland until Thu 5 Apr. Seen at Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Fri 23 Mar.

The Man Who Lived Twice

A fictional meeting, set in a penthouse suite in 1930s New York, between playwright Edward Sheldon and highly popular young actor John Gielgud, exploring love and longing. From Birds of Paradise theatre, with Alison Peebles directing.