FringeReview UK 2018
Playwright Eugene Doyen, and producer Philippa Hammond mount two rehearsed readings at the Purple Playhouse. Thomas Everchild directs and deploys technical presentation with assistance from the Purple Playhouse’s technical resources.
Who’s missed in some dusky Saturday afternoon of their memory or Sky TV, the dazzling aquiline of Dirk Bogarde’s charms? Known as The Leading Man for nearly two decades till his climax in death in Venice, he diversified with the courageous Victim (1961) about a gay man persecuted and Death in Venice: with an obsession for a young Polish boy. It was as near to a confession as he could get in 1971. Bogarde made occasional high-viz appearances but essentially retired soon after The Night Porter in 1973.
The Leading Man isn’t exactly about Bogarde and his forty year companionship with Tony Forward. but takes its inspiration from them and their respective ages are identical. Bogarde born on March 28th 1921, really was 31 in 1952. But it’s not Bogarde was we know him on and off stage, where he could be charming and generous, sometimes less so. This leading man isn’t really Bogarde in character. It’s as if Tony Thomas here is ghosting the life of Bogarde – including his army service and much else – and making someone far more interesting out of him. That is, far darker.
Philippa Hammond produces, Thomas Everchild directs and deploys technical presentation with assistance from the Purple Playhouse’s technical resources.
Eugene Doyen‘s known as a film lecturer and his immersion in this subject’s clear from the outset. Not only in theme, and knowledge of period – this play’s set in 1952 – but in his approach to material. His directions occasionally rival Shaw’s. That’s not unusual in a heavily visualised film and TV script. Clearly here though as with the period dialogue, much needs cutting. To be fair, much has been, even in this performance and as became clear in candid conversations with cast and author, this read performance, is well enough rehearsed to have allowed the liberal use of pruning, much to the author’s pleasure. In a run of two performances it’s safe to say the play itself in outline and character is compelling. The performances are fine. The script needs further editing.
For the scene directions Andrew McDonald narrates. In essence we’re at a rehearsal of a rehearsal where Johnny Melrose ((Tom Dussek) and his wife Rosalyn Greenwood (Sophie Methuen-Turner) are duelling with heartthrob Thomas (Matt Beaumont). Except it’s Thomas and Greenwood on the same side as husband and wife in this silly Scarlet or even Purple Pimpernel derivative, where the hero’s Barton not Sidney Carton and so on. It’s meant to be silly. Problem is after the swordfight Thomas kisses the real husband (a dying Robespierre no less) on the lips.
The scene darkens. It’s clear from the outset before Greenwood arrives the two are lovers and perhaps this opening scene might be cut altogether to lend surprise. The climax of Act One is when everyone’s adjourned for a flurry of accusations. The two clinch again and Gordon Winter’s Lord Saunders called up by Greenwood happens on the pair just broken out of another clinch. Curtain.
Greenwood though 32 and off to Hollywood where her husband is meant to join her, can’t get her head around ‘homosexuals’ or ‘pansies’ and as a repellent character tries to rescue Johnny and failing that condemn Thomas. It seems inconceivable that a leading lady in the early 1950s would be so naïve, and also refusing to follow either clues or consequences. Her trajectory needs to retain its accusatory power for the plot to develop as it does.
Methuen-Turner does her best to convey just how uptight Greenwood is. She manages the stiff RP and zipped sensibilities well but clearly she’s rather confined in scope. If her character could bend a little even become more sympathetic it might show Thomas in an even more implacable light than it does already. Dussek’s Melrose is alas so completely abused and manipulated there’s little for him to do either.
The best dialogue is the sparring between Saunders and Thomas, sophisticate-sleek, urbanely menacing, it’s a clash of equals though even here Thomas is crushing in the end, in the most brutally physical way too.
Stage directions for the latter Act come thick and furious, lending energy, excitement, pace and credibility. You couldn’t predict it; the action’s noirish and sadistic at times. It’s what raises the work’s quality to a real potential above the passable (if intelligently authentic) humdrum of the first Act. If it were all of this quality The Leading Man could play with the best of its genre.
Potential relief arrives in the character of Philippa Hammond’s agent to all three actors, Deborah Ashville. Wholly aware of the affair she’s tried to split up Melrose from Thomas for a bit, so Melrose can accompany his wife to the States. Thomas knew nothing of it and the consequences for fixer Ashville are unhappily severe.
There’s much more activity than the sword-fighting in Act One in the latter part, though it does involve swords, pistols, a pickle jar, a smashed photo and much else. Violence and restraint affects every one of the actors save Ashville, and two end injured. It’s fabulously nasty. And there’s no easy resolution, no happy closure. Doyen’s hit his stride in the last half an hour.
Doyen has both the intellectual measure of the period and academic knowledge of the film industry. His directions as film-prompts are excellent, though for theatre would be 15% of their current length if that. His dialogue though intended to replicate the laden even wooden period conventions shouldn’t reflect that in a very non-1952 scenario offstage.
It’s only curious that Doyen – from the film world where dialogue is further pruned – has elaborated quite as he has. More needs to be trusted in actors’ nuance. It’s a slow lesson that only come from rehearsing with them and Doyen’s clearly begin to learn fast. The film rehearsal – where stilted dialogue is de rigeur – still needs pruning and it began to flourish with this attention. Doyen has rendered this deliciously absurd, though the offstage also needs to be even snappier as direct contrast.
In essence at least 45% of the script as seen should go. Doyen has the kernel of something excellent, disturbing and playable. Next draft please.