Saturday, 11 November 2017

Review The Tailor-Made Man


The story of a once-famous star relegated to obscurity by the Hollywood studios fascinates Tim Gopsill. 

The Tailor-Made Man 
by Claudio Macor

Down And Out And Proud In Hollywood
https://www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk/

Showbiz sleaze is much in the spotlight at the moment but puritanical Hollywood is seen from a less well-known angle in this production of Claudio Macor’s play The Tailor-Made Man.

It’s the true, surprisingly little-heard of, story of William “Billy” Haines, a silent screen idol who successfully bridged both the silents and the talkies in his career.

However,  he would not stay silent about his love life. He was openly gay, rejected the option of a "lavender marriage" and his sexuality led to his movie career downfall.

Yet Billy, played by Mitchell Hunt, with real verve, is hardly portrayed as a victim, but an engaging and appealing individualist who, in spite of his blacklisting, careered his joyful way through life.

He made a new life for himself with his lifelong partner Jimmie Shields. Theirs was a true love story, for despite Billy's habit of picking up sailors  – the supposed cause of his blacklisting -- the couple remained devoted to the end.

The play is structured around a series of flashbacks with Tom Berkeley as Jimmie telling the intriguing tale of their life together to a movie camera, as if being interviewed. 

Each of these flashbacks is preceded by the clapperboard call of “action!” and ends with “cut!” bellowed through a megaphone before the final “it’s a wrap!”,

At first a novelty, these quickly become gratuitous, increasingly irritating punctuations as the two-act play goes on, as if we hadn’t noticed it was about the movie business.

The story is strong and the play could be consistently very enjoyable. Hunt's portrayal of the film star Haines is compelling.
 
Rachel Knowles also turns in two believable performances, doubling up as enchanting but shrewd Hollywood stars, Pola Negri and Carole Lombard, with a keen sense of the absurd, sending up the whole situation.

The characters each may totter around like ditzy celebrities in gold lamé, martinis in hand, but they offer real support and friendship to the boys when they are in trouble.

At the outset Billy is accused being “lip-lazy", not being animated enough as he mimes speech during his performance for silent film.

However, there is a sharp poignancy when another famous actress Marion Davies, played by Yvonne Lawlor, during the filming of a movie scene talks affectionately to Haines about his real life rather than following the lines.

Indeed,  the play covers the golden age of silent movies and Brian Hodgson’s direction picks up superficially the flickers' style but overdoes it with extravagant gesturing and face-pulling.

In addition the male support roles don't weave the same magic as the female actors and Hunt as Haines.

Berkeley's slightly gauche Jimmie  doesn't convince. Dean Harris also lacks gravitas and menace as the great movie mogul Louis B Mayer, who hires and fires Billy, with no punch in the famous one-liners.

Edwin Flay as his PR and fixer Howard Strickling is dull and flat, giving little impression of how he could have possibly got newspaper editors to bend to Mayer’s will.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating, well-written play, not about injustice but the triumph of love in overcoming it.

There are hints about well-known gay stars who never came out and endured years of misery, forced to feign a bogus heterosexuality. This story is the antidote. It’s heartening and fun, but the production needs considerable tightening up and it's an amber light.

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