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About Leo (Susan Elkin reviews)

About Leo – ★★★
By Alice Allemano.
society/company: West End & Fringe (directory)
performance date: 11 Sep 2018
venue: Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6ST


Above: Eleanor Wyld (Eliza Prentice), Susan Tracy (Leonora Carrington – older) – Photo: Robert Workman

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) was a surrealist artist and a rebel. Famously, she had a three-year relationship with fellow artist Max Ernst in the 1930s.

Alice Allemano’s neatly structured, four-hander, debut play presents Leo (Susan Tracy) in old age being visited by an uninvited young journalist (Eleanor Wyld) who wants to talk about the older woman’s life. Carrington lived for many years in Mexico City where these scenes are set. The love affair with Ernst (Nigel Whitmey) took place in France which we see as flashback scenes with Phoebe Pryce as the younger Carrington.

At the heart of this thoughtfully directed (Michael Oakley) piece is an outstanding performance from Susan Tracy who combines physical frailty with mischievous feistiness and vulnerability with lucid determination. Tracy makes Carrington’s hands and eyes tellingly expressive. She works beautifully with Eleanor Wyld too whose character is nervous but trying to be grown up. Their dialogue together is delightfully naturalistic.

The 1930s scenes are less compelling although Pryce finds appropriate flashing passion in her role and Whitmey is reasonably arresting as Ernst – attractive enough, at least, to persuade a woman half his age to turn her back on her family and move in with a married man.

Less successful are the visions, preceded by blackouts (although they’re done slickly enough) in which Carrington is haunted by images from Ernst’s paintings with animal masks. They are meant, I think, along with her obsession with horses, to connote her state of mind. In fact – like the use of radio broadcasts to remind us that this is 1939 and war is being declared – they feel a bit clumsy and awkward.

There’s a fundamental flaw in what the play is trying to say too. It’s called About Leo but that’s misleading. If it’s intended, as it claims, to bring her own life and considerable personal achievements into the public eye then it shouldn’t be almost entirely focused on her time with Ernst. In defining her by her relationship with a man it does little to redeem Carrington from being a mere footnote in the history of art.

Below: Phoebe Pryce (Leonora Carrington – younger), Susan Tracy (Leonora Carrington – older) – Photo: Robert Workman

 This review was first published by Sardines:
Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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