City of Champions (London Theatre Workshop)

Posted: July 21, 2017 in Theatre


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Hollywood studios are usually keen to point out that no animals are harmed during the shooting of their films, but harming children could be another matter. Steve Brown’s searing drama is a reminder that, for every Jodie Foster or Christian Bale who makes the transition from child to adult stardom, there is a…well, no need to be unkind.

Brown’s play takes place in Inglewood, the downmarket end of Hollywood, known as “City of Champions”. It is a play that scrapes away the glitter from La La Land‘s City of Stars and exposes the sleaze, a world of alcohol, drugs and sex abuse. Developed over three years, this is the first production to be brought through from scratch as part of Ray Rackham’s London Theatre Workshop Lab project.

We first meet Laurie Munro (Joel Arnold) in his ramshackle bedsit, waking from his slumbers in mid-afternoon. Empty beer bottles are scattered around and he emerges in his underwear, odd socks on his feet. He is 38, but his trusty teddy bear is always close at hand. At the age of 14, he had starred in the hit film “The Red Hot Popsicles”, which still has enough devoted female followers to give him all the bedmates he needs, but his career has been on a long downward slide and occasional tours in Grease and Hairspray have been interrupted by long spells in rehab.

Laurie has an on-going bromance with his former co-star Lonnie Drake (Joe Southall), himself a reformed alcoholic, but now married to Amie (Ellie Ward) and able to offer his friend some stability and a room at his home. The teen stars’ story is one of lost childhood innocence, of being dazzled by the illusion of stardom and of being left at the mercy of sexual predators such as the director James Hudson Phillips (Ian McCurrach). Laurie’s ambitious mother, Barbara (Maggie Robson) had driven her young son to screen tests and left him unchaperoned, effectively turning a blind eye to what could be happening inside.

With knowledge of cases of historic child abuse in show business that have come to light in recent years, nothing in Brown’s play feels far-fetched and his dialogue also has the ring of authenticity. Credibility is helped further by Arnold, who is terrific, giving Laurie the charisma and swagger of a movie star as well as the despair of a man who is damaged deeply inside. His plea for his body to be his own and no longer public property is heartbreaking, but, despite finding solace in the arms of another former co-star, Mary-Celeste (Amy Burke), a way forward eludes him.

In the second act, separate confrontations which Phillips has with Laurie and then Lonnie give the play its fire as the full horror of what had occurred emerges. McCurrach’s louche Phillips has a sickening air when he is revealed to be an unrepentant paedophile and Southall’s Lonnie gains in stature as he comes to accept the futility of continuing to conceal the truth and the conspiracy of silence begins to unravel.

Brown explores how the irresistible lures of fame and fortune can lead to lives being destroyed when those with malign intent are allowed to exploit the vulnerable. His play is overlong at just under three hours (including interval) and the closing scenes need to be tighter, particularly when unfitting sentimentality creeps in, but, overall, it packs a heavy punch as it makes us think about what could lie behind the making of the films that we all love.

Performance date: 20 July 2017

Photo: Rosalind White Photography

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