Michael Portillo - Larger than life

Theatre - Even in death, Captain Bob brags, bullies and beguiles, writes Michael Portillo

Lies

Does the name Jan Ludvik Hoch mean anything? How about Ivan du Maurier? Or Leslie Jones? Hoch, the son of a cattle dealer, was born in Slatinske Doly, Czechoslovakia, in 1923. Du Maurier enlisted in the North Staffordshire Regiment two decades later. In between, this impoverished Jew (for these aliases are all one person) had escaped from the Nazis, possibly heroically. Except for two sisters, his whole family was wiped out. The young man fought in Normandy as a sergeant, and in 1945 joined the Queen's Royal Regiment and was commissioned. He became Ian Robert Maxwell and received the Military Cross, which Monty pinned to his chest.

According to his own accounts of his life, throughout his childhood he went hungry. So, perhaps it is not surprising that as he became first a hero and a British officer, and later a very rich and powerful man, he was so impressed by his own achievements.

Throughout Lies Have Been Told, a one-man show about the late proprietor of the Mirror newspapers, Maxwell pigs himself on Beluga, which he washes down with Krug. He tours the front row of the audience genially offering the public a chance to taste his £250-an-ounce caviar. When at last someone accepts and lunges for the thickly spread blinis, Maxwell withdraws it. "Bloody well earn it like I've had to."

The scene shows some of the duality of Maxwell's character. The co-producer Dale Djerassi tells us in a programme note how kind to him Maxwell was over several years. It began when Djerassi, as an 18-year-old student, introduced himself to the tycoon at a restaurant and was immediately invited to visit Maxwell's Headington Hill Hall mansion outside Oxford. But Captain Bob also terrorised employees with his bullying and vituperation.

So although you might think Maxwell one of the greatest villains of the business world in the late 20th century, lifting roughly £440m from more than 30,000 pensioners of his companies, this play is no hatchet job. One reason may be that the work was the brainchild of Philip York. He met Maxwell several times during the 1970s and suggested to the author Rod Beacham that he write this monologue.

During the course of the evening, we in the audience do not know where we stand with Maxwell. Sometimes he bellows at us to sit up straight. Then he smiles, and almost flirtatiously lifts one eyebrow to mollify us. He means no harm after all. At other times we are almost weeping with him at the memory of his murdered mother, or gaping with admiration as he tells us how as a 16-year-old he overcame his Nazi guard with the aid of a gypsy woman. Then, on reflection, we have no idea whether to believe a word of it.

York is flawless as Maxwell. He achieves an uncanny physical resemblance, though even with cushioning he lacks the girth of the 20-stone hulk who fell from his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, in 1991. York makes us feel as though we have been admitted to an audience in his office. We have been asked in so that he can put the record straight, because lies have been told about him. We are in his presence as he receives news from the markets, bellows orders down the phone and abuses staff. He humours us, takes us into his confidence, becomes exasperated with us, and finally teases us with conflicting accounts of how he met his end in the waters of the Atlantic.

Beacham's writing is excellent. He delivers a mass of information but the pace changes as often as Maxwell's moods. Beacham's Maxwell urges us not to be naive. The world does not divide into good guys and bad, he tells us. If the company director who was described by the Department of Trade and Industry as unfit to run a public company in 1973 was later allowed to become the owner of a daily newspaper and a power in the land, it was because it suited many people, those who "could smell money on his hands and on his breath".

The show spreads its guilt to the audience, too. We enjoy it when someone else gets bullied or when Maxwell unleashes a stream of invective against Rupert Murdoch. We are gripped by a voyeuristic fasci-nation to know whether finally Maxwell fell, was pushed, or committed suicide.

Maxwell's charm works on us. His greed can be understood because of those long years during which he never had enough, and was gnawed by hunger. We salute the young hero and the self-made man. And when he stole, it was not to line his own pocket, but to keep his companies going, on which so many depended for their livelihoods.

This portrayal almost takes us in. Fortunately, with the first breath of fresh air outside the theatre, we pull ourselves together. Maxwell was one of the great crooks of his century. It takes more than a tough childhood to excuse his crimes.

Booking to 28 January on 0870 060 6632