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Review: Rossiter at Hope Street Theatre ***1/2


On October 5, 1984, Leonard Rossiter was in his dressing room at London’s Lyric Theatre where he was appearing in a revival of Joe Orton’s dark satire Loot.

But during the first half, the Wavertree-born actor missed one of his entrances – and when backstage crew went to search for him, they found him collapsed in his dressing room.

Rossiter had suffered a fatal heart attack. He was just shy of his 58th birthday.

It’s that final moment which begins writer Jim Blythe’s gentle, life-flashing-before-your-eyes exploration of the man and his roles.

Actor Toby Harris anchors the one-man show as Rossiterhimself, dispensing with the fourth wall to muse on the challenges thrown at him and choices he made, addressing both an imaginary (and Hope Street’s very real) audience.

While Harris offers snatches of Rossiter’s two most famous characters, Rigsby and Reggie Perrin, this is less an Impersonation than an impression - in the broader sense - of the actor’s life.

Like all lives, it’s a story of sliding doors and what ifs? What if his dad John, volunteering as an ambulance driver, hadn’t been killed in the May Blitz (he died at Mill Road Hospital) and the teenage Leonard hadn't had to abandon his academic ambitions to get a job? What if a girlfriend, belittled for her am-dram acting abilities by Rossiter, hadn’t challenged him to do better himself?

Other figures come and go in the monologue – one, the young ‘Mike Williams’ whom Rossiter worked with in the Commercial Union insurance company in Liverpool, also became an actor. Better known as Michael Williams, he went on to marry his co-star Judi Dench.

There’s plenty in Blythe’s script to interest people who might only know Rossiter from his Seventies TV roles or Cinzano ads.

Rossiter was an old-school rep-trained thesp who was serious about and dedicated to his craft, a fan of team sports – “cricket, football, theatre”, a wine connoisseur (with a cellar in his attic), a ‘happy’ family man who still strayed.

Harris as Rossiter paces the dressing room set as he speaks, perpetually taking off and putting on clothes from the two long rails upstage as if he’s stripping off and putting on his various characters.

But while the 50-minute studio piece has a satisfyingly circular structure, it lacks any really punchy dramatic moments.