Getting old isn’t easy, getting old and have your body fail is ruddy tough. But getting old and losing your mind is probably the worst thing that could happen and this is at the heart of “Gods and Monsters” running at the Southwark Playhouse.
Once one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood, James Whale (Ian Gelder) hasn’t worked on a movie for over a decade when the play opens in the late 1950s. Officially retired, though there are suggestions that his career was terminated by Universal because of homophobia, James spends his days pottering about cared for by his devoted, if disapproving maid Maria (Lachele Carl). It could be an idyllic life for James but he has had a stroke and started suffering headaches which are getting worse. His physician, the appropriately named Dr Payne (Will Rastall) can’t do much more than prescribe stronger medication to alleviate the symptoms but the reality is that James’ mind is starting to go and there isn’t much that can be done about the sudden bouts of mental torment and hallucinations that he suffers.
We see an example of this when an over-keen young fan of James’ work, Kay (Joey Phillips) comes to interview him. It’s obvious that when he says he is a fan of James, Kay means is that he is a fan of the Frankenstein movies made by him and that’s pretty much it. James is a bit bored with the interview so comes up with a novel idea to make it more interesting, at least for himself, and young Kay goes along with the plan – which personally I think would make certain TV talk shows a lot more watchable. During the course of the interview, James has a mental attack leading to a vivid flashback to his younger days in Dudley with his good friend Tozer. Returning to the present, James is weakened by the flashback and assisted by Maria and Kay, he goes off to relax and on the way, notices the new young, and very attractive, gardener ex-marine Clayton Boone (Will Austin) mowing the lawn.
James develops a sort of relationship with the obviously heterosexual Clayton when he suggests that Clayton model for him. During the course of these sittings, James and Clayton talk, leading to James again having flashbacks to various stages of his early life – particularly his time in the First World War. As the flashbacks get worse, so does James mood and depression leading to him formulating a radical and horrific solution leaving me, yet again choking back the tears at the end.
Written and Directed by Russell Labbey and based on the original novel ‘Father of Frankenstein’ by Christopher Bram, “Gods and Monsters” is a powerful story of the declining years of a person that used to be famous. Ian Gelder is absolutely marvellous in the role of James Whale and using various nervous tics and movements really brings across the mental issues the old man is suffering as well as giving the audience an insight into the personality of the man himself. Will Austin’s Clayton is fantastic. Although much of the publicity around the show has concentrated on Will’s body – which is stunning – he is also a dammed fine actor whose character seems to almost love (in a father/son way) the unrepentant homosexual obviously lusting after his body and sharing his memories and a dark secret with him. The two actors have a real dynamic on stage and, particularly in the second act – which is pretty much just them – their affection for each other, despite everything that occurs is obvious to see.
I have to say that if I ever get into the position of affording one, I would love to have a maid like Lachele Carl’s Maria. A feisty, take-no-nonsense, devout Roman Catholic who completely disapproves of James’ homosexuality, leading to her delivering my second favourite line of the play ‘Don’t go hurting him, God will be doing that soon enough’ Nevertheless her dedication to her employer/friend is there for everyone to see and if she could, she would protect him from the world forever. And finally, Joey Phillips and Will Rastall are both brilliant in their varied roles. Both in the present day and in the flashback sequences, these two are very convincing switching personas at the drop of a hat or an amazing change of accent
All told, this was a wonderful piece of theatre. The writing, direction and acting were mesmerising from start to finish. The first act ran for 80 minutes and I was really surprised when it ended, the time had literally flown by. Whilst the story itself was quite dark there was a lot of humorous moments – such as my favourite line of the evening, James introducing Clayton to Princess Margaret “he’s never met a princess before though he knows a lot of queens’ – to ensure the mood didn’t get too oppressive.
“Gods and Monsters” is a wonderful play about a fascinating man and whether you are a fan of the horror genre of films or not is a fantastic examination of how a troubled person faces up to his own monsters be they real or imaginary.
Review by Terry Eastham
Frankenstein director James Whale, long forgotten by the studios and in reclusive Hollywood retirement has fallen victim to a series of strokes. The only demons he fights now are in his head. Handsome new gardener, Clayton Boone, becomes an unlikely friend and unwitting player in Whale’s grand finale.
Not so much a Hollywood history as a glorious imagining exploring the sometimes divine, sometimes monstrous landscape of obsession and desire. Based on the novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram – the same source material as for the 1998 Oscar-winning movie, Gods And Monsters.
Creative Team: Director Russell Labey, Set & Costume Designer Jason Denvir, Lighting Designer Mike Robertson, Sound Designer John Chambers, Projection Designer Louise Rhoades-Brown, Producer and Casting Director Danielle Tarento.
Cast: Will Austin, Lachele Carl, Ian Gelder, Joey Phillips and Will Rastall
77-85 Newington Causeway
London SE1 6BD
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Thursday 5 February – Saturday 7 March
Times: Monday – Saturday at 7.30pm
Saturday matinee at 3.00pm
Wednesday 11th February 2015