I’m terrible at flirting. It’s a fact of life and something I’ve had to accept over the course of many failed attempts to catch someone’s eye and get them to want me the way I want them. However, some people can flirt with words or even a glance. They can take the most innocent of sentences and load them full of innuendo and meaning. One such person was Hollywood icon Mae West and I recently had a chance to find out more about this particular screen goddess at a performance of Better Than Sex in the Toulouse Lautrec.
Told as a first-person monologue, with piano accompaniment provided by Kieran Stallard, Mae (Bella Bevan) herself is on stage recounting her early life and completely blowing away everything I thought I knew about her. For a start, Mae was so much more than an actress from the 1930s. In fact, she was a singer, playwright, screenwriter, comedian whose entertainment career spanned seven decades and, even in her later years, remind a major sex symbol. Over the course of the show – written and directed by Emily Hutt – Mae, in her broad New York accent, tells us of her first step into the entertainment limelight at a church social when she was five years old. This led to her first Vaudeville performance.
We follow Mae through the ups and downs of her theatrical life and the discovery that a combination of censorship and sex would make her career. Thrown into jail in 1927 for “corrupting the morals of youth” because of the complaints made against the play she wrote and directed called, not surprisingly “Sex”. And so the story goes on. From Vaudeville to Hollywood where her acting and re-writing of scripts saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy, her struggles with the strict Hays censorship office, and her eventual move out of films and back to the stage. All told, Mae had a really interesting life and Emily Hutt and Bella Bevan have brought her story to life with text, songs and snippets of the one-liners that made her so famous.
The production is nicely staged, and is a really loving rendition of the life of this multi-talented thespian. Bevan flirts with the audience in true Mae style and has a really great singing voice that brings great songs including “Frankie and Johnny” and “Fifi” to life. My personal favourite was “A Man What Takes His Time” which – depending on how you read the lyrics – was both suggestive and heartwarming at the same time.
All told, Better Than Sex is a lovely introduction to an amazing icon of a bygone age, where men thought they had all the power, but a suggestive look or comment from the right lady could reduce them to mere pawns in the game of love. My one criticism is that I would have loved the show to be longer and gone more into Mae’s private life and career after she left Hollywood. But, having said that, the show really whetted my appetite to find out more and I’ve now read articles and watched YouTube clips of the lady herself, all thanks to great writing and a skillful portrayal of one of Hollywood’s finest.
Review by Terry Eastham
Better Than Sex: The Story of Mae West is a one-woman tantalising and timeless cabaret reflecting on the infamous 1930’s sex-symbol, Mae West. Through this icon we hear the tale that led to the rise and fall of her scandalous career, including live performances of the songs she made famous including “A Guy What Takes His Time” and “I’m No Angel”. Written and directed by Emily Hutt, and starring Bella Bevan as Mae West herself. This is a cabaret to entertain but also to tell an important story of a woman who didn’t let the social constructs of her time stop her from having the career and leading the life she wanted, therefore being a source of inspiration still to women of today.
Mae West: Bella Bevan
Director/Writer- Emily Hutt
Toulouse Lautrec (140 Newington Butts, Kennington, SE11 4RN)
8:30pm, Monday 15th April 2019
Run Time: 1 hr