We talk today of British invasions of Hollywood, but when was it ever different? In the mid-1950s, Dudley-born James Whale was one of many British imports parading their cinematic talents on America’s West coast and playing host to the likes of Princess Margaret. By then, he was nearing 60, on the fringes of Tinseltown’s elite and its gay sub-culture, but still revered for directing classics such as Showboat, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and, most famously, the first two Frankenstein films. He had suffered a stroke and, although not physically impaired, was left with bouts of serious depression, passing the days in his mansion, with just a Hispanic housekeeper for company. Russell Labey’s play, which he directs himself, is adapted from Christopher Bram’s fact-inspired novel Father of Frankenstein, filmed in 1998 also as Gods and Monsters. The play shows the lonely figure of Whale (Ian Gelder), tormented by confused memories and taking consolation in homoerotic visions from past and present; he befriends Clayton Boone (Will Austin), a gardener with the appearance of an Adonis, knowing that he is unattainable, as would be anything else that he might wish for in his declining years. His life has taken him from a childhood of poverty and a diet of beef dripping sandwiches, through the trenches of World War I to relative luxury in the perpetual Summer of California. It is a journey which he does not want to see diminished by him being remembered only for a couple of horror movies. Jason Denvir’s set, an unusually large and sparsely furnished room, augments an atmospheric production, which creates the sense that this isolated man has been transplanted and marooned here physically, whilst his soul lies buried in Black Country grime and the mud of European battlefields. Labey’s beautifully literate writing and Gelder’s haunting performance are spellbinding throughout, well supported by Austin, Lachele Carl as the housekeeper and Will Rastall and Joey Phillips, who share the roles of the young Whale and young men who feature in his life. Boone, perhaps of necessity, remains a hollow character, denying Act II some dramatic impetus and leading to a climax that is not wholly convincing. However, taken in its entirety, Labey’s play is a profoundly moving study of a life that is nearing its end.
Performance date: 9 February 2015