Home » London Theatre Reviews » The Tailor-Made Man – Stage Door Theatre | Review

The Tailor-Made Man – Stage Door Theatre | Review

A question for all those film buffs out there. How many of you have heard of an actor called William Haines? I’m guessing not that many. And yet why? Haines was a top-five box-office star from 1928 to 1932 successfully transitioning from silent into the talkies. The 1930 Quigley Poll, a survey of film exhibitors, listed Haines as the top box-office attraction in the country. Then all of a sudden, he and his films vanished, never really seen again. If you want to know why, then get yourself to the Stage Door Theatre where Lambco’s latest production. The Tailor-Made Man offers more than a glimpse into this sordid Hollywood tale.

Hugo Pilcher and Shelley Rivers in The Tailor-Made Man. Photo by Peter Davies
Hugo Pilcher and Shelley Rivers in The Tailor-Made Man. Photo by Peter Davies

1922 and William ‘Billy’ Haines (Hugo Pilcher) is a winner in the Goldwyn Pictures’ “New Faces of 1922” contest which includes a film contract with the studio. Publicist Howard Strickling (Peter Rae) begins the publicity campaign around the young star to be. A house, car, clothes, and a back-story that, combined with Haines good looks and natural charm, will delight the female audience. However, like most things in Hollywood, not everything is as it would appear. And Billy, far from being the ultimate ladies’ man looks in totally the opposite direction for his romantic encounters. That’s fine with Strickling as long as whatever he does, not a word gets out to the general public. To that end, the studio wants to arrange a sham lavender marriage to faded starlet Pola Negri (Olivia Ruggerio). Unfortunately, with Billy’s rather voracious sexual appetites, that’s not as easy as it seems until he meets Jimmie Shields (Gwithian Evans), an artistic young man with whom Billy builds a relationship. Unfortunately, and to the consternation of Jimmie, and friends like Marion Davies (Shelley Rivers), Billy has trouble being monogamous and finally has one sordid encounter too many for studio head Louis B. Mayer (Dereck Walker) who, no spoilers, does not react well.

I’d often read about the old Hollywood studio system and the power they held over their actors but never fully appreciated just how all-encompassing that power actually was. Playwright Claudio Macor really brings it to life. From Billy’s first encounter with Strickling, through to the end of his film career, you really appreciate that for the studios, actors were simply another resource, like lights and scenery to be used as needed. Macor has really penned a fascinating play about a dark time in Hollywood and the story of Billy’s rise and fall really is compelling. While the play starts slowly, and I will admit, it took me a little while to really get into it, by the end I was totally hooked and invested in finding out what happened to Billy and Jimmie, and really shocked that while he disappeared from view, the mere whisper of Billie’s name was enough to keep actors closeted for generations.

I loved the staging of the show, a sort of bespoke in the round set up with the main action taking place in the centre of the room and separate stages on opposite corners. This worked well although I noticed that the people sitting on the same wall as the monitor, didn’t seem to initially realise it was there so missed the date/location changes shown on it. Richard Lambert’s lighting created nice spaces which made the entire performance area feel larger than it was. David Shields’ design and Costume Supervisor Janet Huckle gave the space and the actors an authentic 1920s/30s feel, dropping the audience into that world in style.

So, let’s move on to the performances. Hugo Pilcher really looks and sounds the part as Billy. A great mix of cocky arrogance and bravado but with a young man seeking something special buried inside. Pilcher really looks the part of an early cinema heartthrob and has a real sexuality that builds a lovely chemistry with Gwithian Evans’ Jimmie making the two characters really believable as partners for life. Peter Rae was excellent in his two extremely different roles, the ultimate corporate man Victor Strickling and a gay British author Victor Darro and really shone in both. In fact, I loved all the cast and Olivia Ruggerio, Shelley Rivers and Dereck Walker are to be heartily congratulated for their fine performances.

Overall, I loved The Tailor-Made Man. The story was fascinating and brought to life beautifully by the cast. It’s a wonderful insight into the Studio System and how lives can be altered because those in charge disapprove and have the power of total control.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Gwithian Evans (Jimmie Shields)
Hugo Pilcher (William ‘Billy’ Haines)
Peter Rae (Howard Strickling)
Shelley Rivers (Marion Davies)
Olivia Ruggerio (Carole Lompard / Pola Negri)
Dereck Walker (Louis B. Mayer)

Writer Claudio Macor
Director Robert McWhir
Designer David Shields
Producer LAMBCO Productions

The Tailor-Made Man, by Claudio Macor, is the powerful true story of the Hollywood studio system in its heyday, its hypocrisy and the star who gave up everything for the man he loved.

William “Billy” Haines was a popular  MGM movie star in the 1920’s who was fired by studio boss Louis B. Mayer because he was gay and refused to give up his lifelong partner, Jimmie Shields, and marry the silent screen vamp Pola Negri in a sham lavender marriage.

As punishment, his films were pulled from release and sealed in the MGM vaults never to be seen again, and his official studio photographs were destroyed. It was an attempt to erase him completely from movie history. But Billy and Jimmy’s turbulent, passionate love affair was to survive and lasted over 50 years. This is their story.

Stage Door Theatre
9 May to 3 August (on selective dates)


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