The time of the play is set around Burton’s 46th birthday, a dozen years or so before he died of a cerebral haemorrhage, when he had just finished filming Under Milk Wood, with Elizabeth Taylor; the place is his home in Celigny, in Switzerland. Dressed in a 70’s yellow cardigan, he starts by telling us of his humble childhood in Wales, and the life he led as Richard Jenkins, the penultimate child of thirteen. His mother, Edith, died when he was two and he was brought up by one of his sisters; his coal miner father, Dick Bach, was a significant drinker and a frequent absentee.
On then to his schooling, his love of rugby and his first steps in acting, when he pinched his new surname from one of his teachers. We are treated to a selection of amusing lovey anecdotes and some unashamed theatrical name-dropping, and all the while Burton is steadily drinking, gradually downing a crystal decanter of the stuff in the course of the show. He tells us frankly of his sexual conquests, boasting that he slept with all of his leading ladies (except Julie Andrews), whilst initially remaining married to his wife, Sybil.
His stormy relationship with Elizabeth Taylor is fascinating, as is the international reaction to their antics, and this section of the play reflects that interest keenly. Most of the play is about the ups, but there are significant downs, too: how he let down Dylan Thomas, his eventual divorce from Sybil and consequent separation from his two daughters, one of whom was autistic, and his sadness over his brother Ivor, and these suggest why he may have found a destructive solace in drinking. The director, Hugh Thomas uses the lighting very effectively in conveying changes in mood in a rather bleak section towards the end, when Burton is in his cups.
It all works brilliantly. This is a terrific show, worthy of the high ratings it was awarded in Edinburgh, and I can recommend it highly.