The Park Theatre is so welcoming to its patrons that it borders on unwelcoming, with punters spilling out onto the pavement outside, and its ground and first floor bars full. You know those City bars that are bursting to overflowing on a mild weekday evening? If I hadn’t known any better I would have thought I was in one of those. Still, it’s pleasing to see a theatre doing such a roaring trade: the alternative is so much worse.
Despite being called The Park Theatre, it is two venues, unimaginatively titled Park 200 and Park 90. The numbers, if you haven’t deduced already, reflect the number of seats in each studio. The former has allocated seating, the latter does not, unless you have a physical disability or other special requirement, in which case it is possible to reserve seats, though quite where is at the theatre management’s discretion. But none of the pushing and shoving that used to take place at the Young Vic before they were effectively forced to introduce seat numbers and allocation – the Park’s patrons are thankfully more civilised.
This production of The Glass Protégé featured a large Hollywoodland sign, comprised of yellow LEDs spelling out the letters, quite untidily. A table at downstage left with a green felt cover had champagne and whisky bottles, plus glasses. There is one upholstered chair on either side of the table. Upstage centre is a four poster bed, initially with its net curtains drawn. The curtain facing the centre section of the audience (the audience is seated on three sides of the stage) showed trailers for movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, though the ripples in the curtain made it difficult to make out faces and details. On the floor are old style film reels, on top of which are a set of papers, presumably mostly film scripts.
At the centre of the story is (what was at the time) an inappropriate love affair between Patrick Glass (Paul Lavers as portrayed in 1989, a highly likeable David R Butler as portrayed in 1949) and Jackson Harper (Alexander Hulme). Glass hails from Oxford but has arrived in LA thanks to the efforts of Lloyd (Roger Parkins), producer and filmmaker extraordinaire, who wants, in the clichéd term, to make Glass a star. Glass is a stage name – he is actually Patrick Glassman, but Glassman, the Hollywood studio believes, is “too Jewish”, a line that did not go down too well with some in this North London audience.
There is Nella (Mary Stewart), a magazine columnist, whose style of outward ruthlessness made her out to the play’s ‘baddie’. It is a fellow actress in the movie ‘The Secret Heart’, Candice Carlisle (Emily Loomes), who reveals the homosexual relationship between her co-stars, and it is Hollywood’s PR machine that forces Jackson Harper out of a job and Patrick Glass into becoming a husband and a father – to a woman he never loved, because he couldn’t. In the PR parade of press interviews and film shoots Glass and Harper lost contact with one another.
In 1989, Patrick Glass’ East German assistant, Ava (Sheena May), has only come to the United States after Glass’ son, George (Stephen Connery-Brown) responds to some sort of newspaper advertisement. She is, though never stated in so many words, a mail order bride, albeit one that speaks fluent English. Ava successfully tracks down Harper and Glass finally comes out to George, but Glass has been too much of a recluse for too long that he is only reunited with his lover in death. History does not exactly repeat itself in terms of sham marriages after Ava decides to return to Germany.
The issue I have is not so much with the plot itself but the way in which it is presented. It is disjointed. It jumps around too much between 1949 and 1989 and back again, and forward again. The kangaroo hopping means the audience is drawn into a scene and then – suddenly – it’s all change, this scene terminates here, everyone off this train and get on the train on the adjacent platform that will continue on to the destination. And then this happens again. And again. Then the play virtually doubles back on itself. The audience is made to work far harder than necessary. There is even a scene where the lights go up so much for what transpires to be a scene in a hotel ballroom that some of the audience (yours truly included) mistakenly applauded for what we had thought to be the end of Act One!
“When you live your life in the closet, in the end you start to cough up mothballs,” muses the older Patrick Glass. The closeted life, however, began very suddenly, and under the influence of alcohol. There was little to suggest Glass and Harper had fancied each other before the end of Act One, which abruptly ends with a passionate kiss, and it is quite clear they are about to make love. Thus the double-meaning of the film title ‘The Secret Heart’. “Lying, acting, it’s all the same,” Harper almost snaps, words which I initially agreed with but on further reflection I find over-simplistic. On one level he’s right, however, storytelling through acting is not the same as outright lying.
I felt the staging could have been better in places – a telephone was placed upstage right which, whenever answered, meant part of one side of the audience had their view obstructed by the four poster bed, and another side either had to turn their heads 90 degrees to the left or even look behind and left – just to see who was speaking one side of a conversation!
Still, this is a very, very strong cast, who do wonders with what they are given. Despite the script’s shortcomings they provide plenty of food for thought. The repercussions of how homosexuals were treated in a previous generation are still felt. Whether they were forced into being heterosexual by the Hollywood PR machine or by ‘conversion therapy’ drugs: how many people today are still directly or indirectly affected? Even the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 General Election attempts to address that very question: “We will build on the posthumous pardon of Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing, who committed suicide following his conviction for gross indecency, with a broader measure to lift the blight of outdated convictions of this nature. Thousands of British men still suffer from similar historic charges, even though they would be completely innocent of any crime today.”
The exploration of the implications of what happened in 1949 forty years later seemed very rushed to me, and its ending, though tragic, not entirely believable. It is, though, a challenging and thought-provoking couple of hours that has an appeal far beyond the LGBT community, exploring another side of the Golden Age that is not always considered when people hark back to apparently more innocent times.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Glass Protégé
by Dylan Costello
A time when passion was lauded but sex never discussed. So when young British actor, Patrick Glass, embarks on a scandalous homosexual love affair with his famous co-star, he starts to feel the full force of the studio’s career-destroying muscle. Forty years later, as the truths of the past are uncovered, the true consequences of this ‘unacceptable’ romance come to light.
Playwright – Dylan Costello
Director – Matthew Gould
Producer – Giant Cherry Productions
Set & Costume Designer – Jean Gray
Set & Costume Assistant – Zoe Hammond
Lighting Designer – Joshua Sung
Sound Designer – Will Thompson
Stage Manager – Antonia Petruccelli
Patrick – David R. Butler
George – Stephen Connery-Brown
Jackson – Alexander Hulme
Pat – Paul Lavers
Candice – Emily Loomes
Lloyd – Roger Parkins
Ava – Sheena May
Nella – Mary Stewart
Tue – Sat Evenings 19.45
Thu & Sat Matinees 15.15
Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval
Thursday 16th April 2015