Thursday, 12 February 2015

Gods and Monsters - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Written and Directed by Russell Labey

Ian Gelder and Will Austin

There is some fine new writing to be found in the world premiere of Russell Labey's Gods and Monsters, a play that examines the life of Hollywood director James Whale, best known for creating the Boris Karloff Frankenstein movies. We meet Whale as an elderly man suffering from the effects of a stroke. Painfully aware that his mind is beginning to unravel, Labey's play pitches Whale into encounters that take him to the very thresholds of his reason. When a youthful and ultimately irresistible Mr Kay, a movie geek, arrives at the director's Beverly Hills mansion to interview the old man, his meltdown commences. But it is when Clayton Boone, Whale's newly hired gardener with the form of an Adonis becomes an ever persistent distraction/attraction to the ageing filmmaker, that his fate is sealed. And as with so many of the best Hollywood stories, Tinseltown's shimmering curtain is slowly raised to reveal a tawdry, even if sensational, sadness.

Ian Gelder is Whale in an outstanding performance. On stage almost throughout, his lust for the two men is a brilliant portrayal of desperation, not just for sex, but also to be freed from the torment of his mental and physical decline. A thunderstorm triggers horrific flashbacks to the horrors he witnessed as an army captain in the trenches during World War One and the blurring of the eras in Whale's mind is not only carefully performed by the actor, it is also a show of intuitive stagecraft from Labey. The suggestion that the Great War may have influenced the vision of one of the 20th century's most gifted horror-movie directors offers an intriguing nuance to this already carefully layered tale.

Making his professional debut, Will Austin is the perfectly formed Boone. Austin's gives an impressively convincing performance as the straight, muscular jock disgusted by Whale's lust. Judging by the audience gasps on press night, it is clear that in the nude, he impresses too. Will Rastall and Joey Phillips who between them play a raft of younger characters, flesh out the story well and it is fair to say that both actors rise to the challenge of a naked wrestling scene without fluffing their parts. Lachele Carl's turn as Whale's house maid adds just enough hispanic to the mix to seal the Californian setting.

The play's projected designs are a neat idea from Louise Rhoades-Brown and Jason Denvir even if their execution is occasionally clunky and over simplistic. The story's tragic endgame plays out entirely on screen and is handled with a perceptive sensitivity that is only enhanced by John Chambers' subtle background music.

The programme credits Harry Patterson, millionaire novelist as a generous supporter. Bravo sir - for as with most Danielle Tarento productions, the play's artistic standards are amongst the best to be found on London's fringe and these don't come cheap.

This troubling story makes for excellent entertainment. Passionate, human and above all telling a gripping tale. Not for the faint-hearted perhaps, but for those who like to be pricked out of their comfort zone by theatre that is sharp and challenging, Gods and Monsters is a must see.

Runs until 7th March 2015

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