Chris Lemmon’s one-man play Twist of Lemmon is a witty, insightful and behind closed doors look at one of the most famous and iconic leading actors of Hollywood, his father Jack Lemmon.
The piece starts informally, the audience are huddled together in a relaxed fashion around small café tables as the projector plays a montage of Jack Lemmon’s most notable moments and works, including Some Like it Hot. Then appears son Chris Lemmon nonchalantly walking up to the stage, pointing at the screen and in a Lemmonesque fashion with cooky mannerisms and exaggerated voice remarks: “that’s my dad!” We can only sense his pride and admiration.
The opening subject of the performance is not a rousing speech about the great talent that was his father, but rather a personal anecdote about what it meant to be Jack Lemmon’s son. Chris takes pains here to stress it is an ‘objective’ thing, eliminating his existence as a person and merely replacing it with a title which people were so fascinated by. Chris then begins to take the role of his father, narrating his (Jack’s) early years in Newton, Massachusettes as well as his father’s earliest formative performance as that of a Cowboy in a school play, too small to fit into the costume of the cowboy which belonged to a much bigger and giant boy. There is a series of well constructed physical comedy and quick gags surrounding this comedic story.
In Chris’ dedication to the role of his father, and engagement with the audience, exists a truly uncanny and timeless portrayal. Chris’ ability to switch between the ever so slight mannerisms of Jack, and back to his younger, more naïve self as the ‘Hotshot’ son is the most impressive facet of this production. Told through the eyes of Jack, the audience gets a glimpse at this beloved figure up close. Chris also gives insight into the golden age of Hollywood and the numerous stars Jack called ‘friends’ and frequently associated with at his ‘bachelor pad up in the Hills’ in Los Angeles: Gregory Peck and Walter Matthau to name but a few.
Although the basis of the piece is simple, Chris’ uses the catalogue of Jack’s work to show the ups and downs of their relationship and the times when Jack’s lousy fathering dented the bond between the two. One of the most touching references to the fragile relationship is the comments made about the 1982 film Missing, in which Jack plays a father trying to find the whereabouts of his lost son in a Latin American country. Indeed, Chris, playing Jack, reveals the inspiration for the role was his own relationship with his son, and in this sense Jack was not ‘acting’ but rather being incredibly true to himself in his performance about the difficulty, grief and resentment of being a ‘lousy’ father. This technique of charting Jack’s career while adding personal side notes proved to be incredibly effective, much of the audience were already well-acquainted with Jack’s line of work and the additions only educated the audience about the passion for acting which Jack so firmly held possessed throughout his whole career, a commitment however that meant Jack sacrificed his marriage and family life.
Overall this is a touching tribute to a truly multifaceted, yet troubled actor. Viewing the life of Jack Lemmon, through the eyes of his son playing his father made the whole piece feel that much more familial and intimate. In such a moving story, one can only question how Chris is physically able to repeat the process every night, but what is certain is that all areas, including private and public, are exposed in this revealing, yet warm and humorous play.
Twist of Lemmon is playing at the St James Theatre until 18 June. For more information and tickets, see St James’ Theatre website.
Photo: Kim Sheard