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While An American in Paris captures the dreamy glamour of old Hollywood, Simon McBurney rivetingly evokes its seedy, cynical underbelly, from backroom deals to drug busts and mobsters. Yet it is, in its own way, just as dazzling - a paean to Tinseltown myth-making as well as a blackly comic deconstruction.

McBurney's subject is super producer Robert Evans, now 86, whose dramatic rise and fall is the stuff movies are made of - a fact not lost on Evans, who told his story with Runyon-esque fervour in a 1994 autobiography (subsequently a documentary). This theatrical version both delights in and slyly challenges Evans's constructed image; this was a man who understood fiction can feel more real than reality, but no matter - the story is the star.

Evans was plucked from obscurity by a chance meeting with actress Norma Shearer, who chose him to play her late husband, film mogul Irving Thalberg, in biopic Man of a Thousand Faces. He then appeared in the movie adaptation of The Sun Also Rises, to the objection of everyone (including, in a pithy letter, "Ernest Fucking Hemingway"); Darryl Zanuck's reply gives the play its title, and made Evans realise he wanted to be the one calling the shots.

German businessman Charles Bluhdorn handed the young hustler the keys to Paramount Pictures, and there followed a string of iconic hits: Rosemary's Baby, The Godfather, Love Story, Chinatown. But more fascinating is the behind-the-scenes goss: Polanski the ski buff reeled in with promises of a winter sports movie; Mia Farrow at war with ex Frank Sinatra; the real-life mafia wrangling to secure Al Pacino; the fact that no one understood Chinatown.

The show kicks off with one of the more bizarre incidents: mob fixer Sidney Korshak ensuring the presence of Henry Kissinger at the Godfather premiere. Politics bubbles in the background - Kennedy optimism to Nixon nihilism - as well as seismic changes in Hollywood, from old-school stars to the Seventies revolution and the birth of the franchise.

Evans himself slips in and out of this lore. He's the ghostly puppetmaster, briefly romantic leading man when he married Ali MacGraw, only to lose her to someone more adept at that role: Steve McQueen. He was due to be at Sharon Tate's for dinner on the fateful night of the Manson killings; his luck runs out when he's caught in a coke sting, leading to a public breakdown and brief spell in a mental hospital.

It's always on the edge of believability, that fantastical quality superbly enhanced by McBurney's technological wizardry. Clips of movies elide into filmed projections of the performers, impersonations stray into knowing caricature (Brando is pure mumbling), distorted vocals slide in and out of sync, and music wraps the piece in film noir smoky seduction, while also adding sharp comedy - the ever-fake MacGraw is backdropped by the mawkish Love Story soundtrack.

McBurney (together with Paul Anderson's lighting, Simon Wainwright's video and Pete Malkin's sound) uses film vernacular to great effect. A dolly-mounted camera provides sweeping tracking shots; another tight close-ups of photos and news clippings on top of an illuminated fridge. The older Evans - whose misty memories we're traversing - first appears as a silhouette in Anna Fleischle's clouded glass box, Danny Huston (whose father John appeared in Chinatown) evoking him through gravelly voice and imposing presence.

Heather Burns convincingly plays the young buck Evans and Christian Camargo the later incarnation, but the whole cast voices him - appropriate for a man whose identity was fractured through different tales, reformed in each decade. It's a marvellously versatile company, conjuring up everyone from starlets MacGraw and Faye Dunaway to the weary gambler Mario Puzo, terrifying, soft-spoken Korshak, and Evans's Jewish dentist father, whose big dreams went unrealised.

In an awards speech, Dustin Hoffman compared Evans with Willy Loman. This is a far less disciplined exploration of a man's psyche than Miller's, McBurney succumbing to the rambling epic structure of the packed life story, but there are similar glimmers: the hustling salesman, the towering ego, the self-destructive delusion. Evans's drive, his inescapable love affair with film - and with power - is unsustainable, yet he's also a survivor, rising from the dead literally and figuratively to outlast his contemporaries. The kid's still in the picture, still spinning yarns and cementing his place in Hollywood legend.

The Kid Stays in the Picture at Royal Court until 8 April

Picture credit: Johan Persson

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