Wednesday 27 February 2013

The Tailor Made Man

Arts Theatre, London


Book by Amy Rosenthal and Claudio Macor
Music by Duncan Walsh Atkins and Adam Megiddo
Lyrics by Adam Megiddo
Directed by Claudio Macor

Faye Tozer with members of the company

The Tailor Made Man, a musical adapted from Claudio Macor’s 1995 play of the same name, is a beautifully performed tale of an ugly side to Hollywood. The show explores the little known relationship between talent-spotted movie star William Haines and his lover Jimmy Shields.  Set in early 20th century Tinseltown, an era that has already proved to be such a rich seam of human interest material for dramatists, with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Jerry Herman’s Mack & Mabel to name but two, Macor instead chooses to focus on how Haines was airbrushed from movie history following his arrest for casual gay sex with a sailor. It’s a left-of-field approach to a West End musical, that is well suited to the almost chamber-style intimacy that London’s compact Arts Theatre lends to the staging of this, the show’s inaugural production.

This little known but true story of love set against a backdrop of prejudice and injustice marks an endeavour of labour and dedication from Macor. In an era where West End shows are often inspired by jukebox and film/TV spinoffs, the raw creative energy behind this show is inspirational. Atkins and Meggido's songs are sound and sometimes excellent, with a particularly hauting reprising melody, We Got Time, that is a sensitive composition in words and music sung by the two male leads, Dylan Turner as Haines and Bradley Clarkson as Shields.  As studio boss Louis B. Mayer, the Canadian colossus of a stage presence that is Mike McShane simply steals every scene he has. McShane is also given an almost Vaudevillian number, Family, in which his character's love for apple-pie family values sets him up nicely to be later exposed as a hypocrite. Michael Cotton’s Victor Darro, a friend of both lovers, performs a powerful and moving number, This Love Of Yours, in which his unspoken love for one (and possibly both) of the men is revealed. And in a casting choice that may have been made with ticket sales in mind, Faye Tozer as Marion Davies a Hollywood starlet of the time and confidante of both men, "steps" away from her pop music aura to deliver a stunning performance. From her dazzling blonde wig to her Swanson-esque gowns, Tozer is every inch the Hollywood screen goddess.

The book is a collaboration between Macor and Amy Rosenthal and as a story it carries some uncomfortable flaws. Haines and Shields suffer a horrific homophobic beating following an afternoon on the beach, but when the show’s narrative, in a modern day interview with an elderly Shields, explores whether or not that beating was prompted by Shields’ molestation of a young boy (an alleged crime for which the charges were actually dropped), the writers choose to leave a question mark hanging over Shields’ descriptions of his actions that day. And in a pivotal exchange between Haines and Mayer, where Shields is sacked for what was then judged to be his scandalous homosexual promiscuity and he then retorts by accusing Mayer of groping and abusing young actresses, one is left pondering, did Mayer sack Haines due to prejudiced homophobia, or was he sacked because he had exposed his boss’ perverted philanderings? Neither a beating nor an unfair dismissal can ever be justified, but over both these events, the writers leave an ambivalence that does not help the story’s narrative. And without question, the show’s second act is a far more gripping piece of theatre than the first.

Macor’s direction is intelligent and simple, on a stage that is cleverly lit and tellingly adorned with the reverse side carpentry of  film-studio fa├žade panels from movie sets, suggesting how much of Hollywood is simply shallow appearance lacking substance. Nathan M Wright’s choreography is imaginative but requires polish and this accomplished creative needs to drill his company harder in the ensemble numbers.

The Tailor Made Man is bold and brave, tackling Hollywood's outwardly homophobic attitudes of the time. Only here for a few weeks, the ugly face of the movie business that the show depicts may not surprise. This story though, of two people in love, is carefully crafted, beautifully and sensitively told and is well worth catching.

Runs to April 6 2013

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