BWW Reviews: GODS AND MONSTERS, Southwark Playhouse, February 10 2015

Stroke is a cruel enemy. It takes away great swathes of memory, but leaves enough behind to let you know what's missing. From all those years of accumulated experience, it summons the unwelcome as often as the welcome - sometimes more so. It leaves you pressing your nose against the window of your life, with the goods inside shrouded in a swirling mist, a grotesque clown as likely as a pretty doll to materialise before your eyes.

Hollywood director James Whale's stroke is doing just that - and he's not being helped by film students eager to draw a veil over his Showboat and Journey's End and talk only of his cult hits Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, editing his memory for him, boiling his artistic life down to the monster with the broken brain that he feels himself sliding towards in his real life. With his inhibitions - never much of an obstruction - also affected by stroke, he's soon flirting with his gardener, a buffed-up ex-Marine who poses for portraits, and that is all. And so the frustratons pile up and up and up...

Based on the book that inspired the hit movie of 1998, Gods and Monsters (continuing at Southwark Playhouse until 7 March) is a brilliantly realised exploration of a man condemned to live life in snapshots, in unfulfilling encounters, in a spiral downwards that doctors are helpless to prevent.

But what a life! From the backstreets of Dudley to the trenches of the First World War, from Hollywood darling to Hollywood has-been, from faithful partner to pool party frolicker, Whale did not hold back. Whether gay or straight, everyone will recognise something of themselves in Whale - it's just that he had more of it.

Russell Labey takes on both writing and directing duties - not usually a wise move - but keeps a tight rein on his material, weaving flashbacks into the narrative, injecting plenty of Whale's sardonic wit into the exchanges and building tension towards a beautifully presented denouement that transforms the mood of the second half with joyous release. Labey succeeds because he coaxes sublime performances from his cast of five, who deliver with the skill and commitment one usually finds at the likes of the National Theatre.

Will Rastell gives us a young Lieutentant Whale, growing in confidence as he edges closer to his doomed would-be paramour, a man who never quite left Whale. As the keen, somewhat dim, film student interviewing Whale, Joey Phillips is all coquettish flirting, but irritating - like somebody else's puppy - and looks exactly the kind of boy who wouldn't be short of dates in 1950s Hollywood, where anything went, so long as it was kept out of the press.

A developing menage-a-trois between householder, housekeeper and house guest is at the heart of the play. Ian Gelder is superb as Whale, at one moment charming, another angry, another flirtatious, another threatening - but never less than wholly believable, brimming with the confidence and fragility that his extraordinary 67 years have forced upon him. Lachele Carl (and Maria, the housekeeper whom she plays) does well to keep up with him, spiking her obvious love for the man with religious-inspired barbs that make their bickering as funny as that of any old couple who have lived too long in each other's company. Will Austin's muscly gardener is both more and less than he seems - an everyman amongst these exotic creatures, but no less rounded as a man for that. His respect and revulsion for Whale is constructed carefully, ensuring that their relationship is never less than fully convincing.

With the action never much more than a rake's length away on a thrust stage, this production has all the virtues of fringe theatre: intensity heightened by proximity, actors giving big but controlled performances, and a director trusting us to deal with 80 minutes that flashes by before the interval arrives. This production shows the wonder of what theatre can do - it can hardly do much more.

Photo Annabel Vere.

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