This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
Classic black-and-white films are being screened as the audience enters the theatre for this emotional drama, serving as a reminder of the “golden age” of Hollywood. It was an era in which movie stars were treated as merely products by studios that, being concerned only with image, were prepared to control them and promote myths about their private lives which were at odds with reality. Dylan Costello’s play begins in 1949 with the arrival in Hollywood of Patrick Glass (David R Butler), a young British theatre actor. He has been cast to play opposite Jackson (Alexander Hulme), an established star who is rumoured to be gay, but has become adept at playing the deception game. The play, which tells of the development of an off-screen relationship between the two actors, is a revised version of one that was staged in London in 2010 under the title Secret Boulevard. Showing the long-term damage caused by lives being manipulated and lived in secret, the play also leaps forward 40 years to where an elderly Patrick (Paul Lavers) is now reclusive and embittered; “when you live your entire life in the closet, you start to cough up mothballs” he snarls. Instead of adopting a conventional flashback structure, Costello opts to relate a separate story set in 1989, running in parallel with the 1949 one and told in alternating scenes. That story concerns Ava (Sheena May), who arrives from the newly- liberated East Germany, having been “bought” as a bride by Patrick’s son (Stephen Connery-Brown). There is symmetry here in that Ava becomes a property to be used by others, just as Patrick had been during his film career, but the 1989 scenes prove to be much weaker and less convincing than the ones set earlier. Furthermore, the play’s structure impairs the build-up of tension in the 1949 scenes as Patrick and Jackson grow closer and threats to them become stronger. Not only is this build-up interrupted regularly, but the problem is compounded further when, on several occasions, the older Patrick reveals what is about to happen in the following scene. If we come to resent the intrusions of the 1989 story, perhaps that is a tribute to the strength of the core scenes, which are brought to life by sharp writing, taut direction and strong performances. Butler and Hulme develop a very believable chemistry, bringing out their characters’ vulnerability as they move from mutual suspicion to shared affection. Emily Loomes touches as an insecure leading lady with an unsavoury past, Roger Parkins is a ruthless studio boss and Mary Stewart a venomous gossip columnist. Matthew Gould’s production is performed on a traverse stage, dominated, for both stories, by a large, curtained four-poster bed. Overhead, the famed “Hollywood” sign appears for the 1989 scenes, becoming “Hollywoodland” for 1949, the year in which it was changed. The secret lives of many real stars of the 40s and 50s are now widely known, endorsing the truth underlying this fictional drama. Costello’s play is an interesting examination of the human cost of deception and loss of freedom. Incidentally, it also sets the mind thinking about what my lie behind the facade of modern day celebrity culture.
Performance date: 15 April 2015