Fringe Online 2020
Directed by Jimmy Walters, it’s a Jermyn Street Theatre co-production with Proud Haddock. The first of Jermyn sStreet’s YouTube productions, it’s free though donations are very welcome! It runs till May 26th, when the next Jermyn Street production Rattigan’s 1973 In Praise of Love, is produced.
There’s also every Saturday an episode of Craig Taylor’s One Million Tiny Plays. And an invitation to submit a tiny play of your own.
Forget the Rehearsed Reading tag to this premiere of Tony Cox’s The Skin Game, directed by Jimmy Walters. It’s a first-rate production and outstanding moments where you forget you’re at home, feel yourself in the intimate Jermyn Street Theatre – who co-produce with Proud Haddock.
This play has in a sense gone through flood and fire to a birth. To add injury to injury, Jermyn Street’s Theatre was flooded on April 6th: much including archives and workshops were destroyed. And one of The Skin Game’s protagonists, Spitfire pilot and author Richard Hillary goes through fire before he finds out how to love, twice.
It’s his skin in the game, under Archie McIndoe’s plastic surgeon’s knife after being shot down and burned. But he’s not the first character who needs skin grafts, and we find even they aren’t the only ones with skin in the game: by the end three are stuck together, and peeling away hurts like hell. It all happened.
It’s a four-hander: Skye Hallam’s Merle Oberon, Rachel Pickup her friend Mary Booker, Ian Hallard Archie McIndoe and George Smale Richard Hillary.
London, 1941. Plain-speaking Archie McIndoe’s a bit irritated with Hollywood actress Merle Oberon – though sympathizes when he finds out she’s just been fired from a film over facial scarring. And that’s occurred as he realizes, as Oberon – an Anglo-Indian who daren’t reveal her origins to a racist world – used face-whiteners.
McIndoe suggests R&R; Oberon entertains McIndoe’s patient 21-year-old Spitfire pilot Richard Hillary badly burned facially and on his hands: he’s lost his looks more seriously. Bright Oxford graduate, prickly and vain, he recalls past sexual conquests with bitterness. His mother told him as he later wrote: ‘’You always were too proud of your good looks: arrogant, a bit of a cad. Now you’ll find out who your true friends are!’ I did.’
But he’s also a superb writer and his The Last Enemy his elegy for his friends, remains in print. The story of how he gains the humility compassion and warmth to write it moves through him and Oberon, and her great friend brought out by Cox in a way no biographer’s intuited.
Cox’s drawing on Hillary’s own and the 1988 Richard and Mary by Booker’s later husband Michael Burn, might be recognizable: but the refraction’s different. In 98 minutes we’re treated not just to a miracle of compression but a beautifully focused, believable love triangle where each character’s equally weighted. McIndoe’s role is necessarily smaller, providing the locus. Hallard though invests his role with a sassy straight-to-the-bone address, a wry warmth that bluffs itself till you realize how much he indeed cares for his patients, yet knows he can’t show it.
I thought I knew this story intimately: Cox brings facets of doubt, passion rage and crucially the friendship of Oberon and Booker into a play that at its most passionate is heartbreaking and funny, wry and with more than a smack of nobility.
So of course Oberon and Hillary end up kissing the bit of his mouth that feels. It comes from one of his arms. And the rest of it. Their passionate affair gets tested though when Oberon’s friend, 44-year-old society beauty Mary Booker, bombed out of her flat, comes to stay; and whilst Oberon returns to the States for film work, Hillary bombards her into bed.
Sydney-born Hillary’s a complex character with several biographies (and one third of Sebastian Faulks’ The Fatal Englishman, 1996). Though of his age he’s like war poet Keith Douglas anti-bullshit and notably anti-racist. His fury over an Indian friend denied entry to Oxford after ‘a 1911 experiment… failed’ – he went to Cambridge – is terrific. Hillary would have been equally protective over Oberon: Cox clearly surmises she can confide in this irascible, capricious, acutely sensitive man.
But a man determined to return to flying, frightened his dead friends think him a coward. It’s accelerated by Hillary’s return from the States after a troubled promotion tour: the U.S. is horrified with his scars, he’s told to vanish. It’s extraordinary to note two characters criss-cross the Atlantic in the middle of a war.
Smale not only bears an uncanny resemblance, he’s applied angry make-up with enough bandages to suggest the flinch beneath the skin. A petulant lip-curl, braggadocio tempered by self-mocking shrewdness, poise as he dictates the opening of his book (deadly serious), his different sexual responses, finally a last heartbroken interview a row of RAF buttons can’t shroud, compels total belief.
Cox is equally revealing about Oberon, her brittle Hollywood manners soon giving way to humour warmth and unabashed sexuality – most of all her friendship with Booker. The funniest scene – The Skin Game’s shot through with subdued humour – is when both women ruefully acknowledge how good Hillary is in bed. Significantly whilst Oberon calls him Dickie, Booker calls him Richard: the difference between raw sexual obsession and love.
Hallam’s Oberon is frank, funny, imperious, meltingly loving, desirous, raging. Her poise as Oberon’s riveting; Hallam more than hints simmering fright beneath the sheen she invites Hillary, like McIndoe, to read closely.
It’s sophisticated Booker who badgers Hillary into a book, but Hillary’s been untruthful, stringing both women along though increasingly drawn to Booker. Her intelligence, dignity, hidden intensity’s allied to an acute sense of how this plays out. It’s to his credit Hillary recognizes this. Fire ages his face, Booker’s passionate interrogation puts his best years on him.
Pickup’s slow-drawing from poise and society to break into a love affair she never thought to have is the most moving performance of all. Pickup exudes cool sophisticate; it’s the slow melt to concern, engagement with Hillary as writer and man, that unravels Booker and where Pickup scores most. Her explosion on discovering his duplicity is trumped by her quieter agonies on Hillary’s painful decision.
You forget you’re not in Jermyn Street. In scenes like this all the actors, particularly Pickup in her marvellous explosion, pin you back to your own private theatre seat.
Cox’s welcome return after his 2017 success Mrs Orwell with the first ever reading of The Skin Game is a triumph. Not just over the adversity of lockdown, but for the fluent dissolves, with shifting backgrounds, the remarkably smooth Zoom transitions between actors who can only see each other as we do, is compelling: a tribute to Walters and cast.
Above all they release this fine play as a play. With luck it’ll return triumphant to Jermyn Street soon. But treat this as a wonderful premiere you’ve not had to stir for.