Review: The Dramatic Exploits of Edmund Kean

5 star rating
Fine acting and an intriguingly powerful story provide an exemplary tribute to a great actor, and a felicitous work for the theatrical baptism of a new theatre.
The Dramatic Exploits of Edmund Kean

Image: Ian Hughes

Theatre: The Exchange

Closes here: Sunday 5 November 2017

Ian Hughes

Elizabeth Penny


Ian Hughes


The Dramatic Exploits of Edmund Kean charts the rise and decline of the great 19th century actor.

26th January 1814: An unknown actor from the provinces steps onto the stage at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane to play Shylock.

Following years of hardship and poverty as a strolling player, he was determined to be hailed as the greatest actor that England had ever seen.

Against the odds, he succeeded.

That actor was Edmund Kean.

Within a matter of months, Kean became hugely successful and wealthy - his performances in Shakespeare a talking point in Georgian society.

Coleridge, Keats, Byron and Hazlitt thought his Iago the 'most perfect piece of acting'.

At the height of his fame, it was his off-stage behavior that soon became a talking point - his affairs and drunkenness affecting his ability to play the great Shakespearean roles.

He collapsed on stage playing Othello into the arms of his son, Charles, dying some weeks later at the age of 46 in Richmond upon Thames.

He had squandered his entire fortune, leaving £600 in debts.


The Dramatic Exploits of Edmund Kean is written and performed by Award-Winning Royal Shakespeare Company Actor, Ian Hughes.

The play premiered as part of a Festival of new writing at The Other Place in Stratford upon Avon.

Ian is the winner of the 1st Ian Charleson/Royal National Theatre Award for Best Actor, presented to Ian by Sir Alec Guinness.

Ian spent over 10 years with The RSC playing a wide range of lead roles for the company.

He has also appeared in plays and musicals in the West End as well as extensive work in Regional theatre.

His many TV & Film appearances include Dr Who, Ransom, The Alienist, Torchwood, Robin Hood, Gavin & Stacy, Folyes War, A Waste of Shame, Margaret, Mutual Friends, Doom & The Road To Guantanamo.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Sunday 5 November 2017
Review star rating image for 3 stars

This is the first theatrical production at a brand new venue - The Exchange - located just across the road from Twickenham railway station, owned by Richmond Council, but leased to St Mary's University under an agreement that the building will be used for a mixture of university use, community group use and public events.

Written and performed by Ian Hughes, this one-person show proves almost the ideal choice for launching dramatic work at this well-designed, functional and welcoming new addition to the stock of London theatres.

The reason?

It's the story of one of England's greatest actors, Edmund Kean (1788 to 1833), who once leased a theatre in Richmond and also died in that borough.

Those connections with the locale and theatre in general amply justify the choice of this piece as the inaugural theatrical show.

Moreover, it's a hugely fascinating and compelling story in its own right - with a perfect mix of dramatic ingredients - lovingly written and wonderfully performed by Ian Hughes.

Now for the downside - the play was, sadly, only on for one night.

But I suspect that Ian Hughes has more than enough good sense to see that he has a winner on his hands and will be looking to present the show again in the future - it certainly deserves further airings, so keep a keen eye out for announcements about future performances.

Born in 1788, it wasn't long before Edmund Kean was treading the boards.

At the age of 6, he was playing a goblin in Macbeth at Drury Lane.

But Ian Hughes' story begins much later when the determined, but penniless actor is in his early twenties, about to be a father and is walking to Swansea to join a theatrical company.

And that starts us off on a rags to riches story with Kean, hell-bent on achieving glory on the stage and sublimely confident in his own abilities, eventually becoming the saviour of Drury Lane by attracting theatre-goers in their hordes.

First appearing at Drury Lane as Shylock, Kean went on to play all the big Shakespearian parts including Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello.

And that fame brought enormous wealth - not only for the theatre but also for Kean.

Mr Hughes says that Kean's earnings were estimated at £150,000 in just about 20 years - a staggering sum for the time.

But that wealth was soon squandered and Kean's drinking and womanising cost him dearly with a notorious court case causing his devoted public to turn against him.

Ian Hughes demonstrates not only his own immense acting ability here, but also provides a flavour of Kean's own stage techniques which amazed audiences in London as well as the USA and the rest of Britain, catapulting him to meteoric stardom and attracting the admiration of notables of the day including the infamous Lord Byron.

There are moments of aching poignancy in the narrative - particularly when the actor's eldest son dies on the very brink of Kean's triumphant arrival on the London stage.

But there's more than mere heartache in Mr Hugh's clearly and cleverly-told story, offering wit and wry humour aplenty, together with a variety of characterisations, to keep the appreciative and substantial audience totally engrossed for the duration.

In a one person show, simplicity is often the order of the day and that is certainly the case here with just the art of Kean's contemporary, J. M. W. Turner (who was born in Covent Garden, not far from Kean's own birthplace) providing the backdrops.

And the piece is sensibly split into equal halves with 5 scenes apiece, bracketed with delicate and evocative piano music composed and played by Elizabeth Penny.

Fine acting and an intriguingly powerful story provide an exemplary tribute to a great actor, and a felicitous work for the theatrical baptism of a new theatre in the borough where he died.

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