Rarely can anyone have made such an astonishing stage debut as Will Austin playing Clayton Boone in Gods and Monsters at Southwark Playhouse.
He leaps fully formed, unselfconscious, and pulsating with naked masculinity like a muscle-bound creature from a classic black and white Hollywood shocker, which is perfectly apt, as Russell Labey’s new play – using identical source material as the 1998 movie of the same name, Gods and Monsters – is the fictionalised biographical account of the declining days and weeks in the life of James Whale who, though he directed more than 20 films in his Hollywood career – including what’s considered by many to be the definitive capturing of the Kern/Woodhouse/Hammerstein musical Showboat in 1936 – will be forever remembered as ‘The Father of Horror’.
The four most successful films he made for Universal Studios; Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) not only proved immensely popular commercial successes, but defined for half a century how horror would look on film. His career ended abruptly, however, when differences with the studio, and his own unwillingness to temper his artistic sensibility at the demand of the accountants and money men in charge, led to a fall from grace into genteel obscurity.
The play is set in 1957, at the end of Whale’s life.
Following a series of small strokes Whale (the magnificent Ian Gelder who is by turns touchingly innocent and knowingly predatory) starts to realise that his grasp on the reality of the present is growing painfully tenuous.
The young doctor he sees in the hope of reversing what seems the inevitable slide into senility, Dr Payne (Will Rastall) has no answers other than to send him home with a bottle of pills to his kindly, if judgemental, Hispanic housekeeper, Maria (Lachele Carl).
Present and past become one through a series of flashbacks first to Dudley, where he grew up and became sexually aware (and is played by the versatile Joey Phillips), and then through the trenches of World War One, to the loves he had for the men in his charge (where he is played by Will Rastall).
All this in the context of living to see the growth of television, and a whole new audience for his movies, which bring a fresh generation of film students knocking at his door to find out all about them.
Then one day, apparently for the first time, he notices his gardener, Clayton Boone (Will Austin, in a flawlessly physical and superbly acted performance) and an unlikely friendship strikes up between the elderly former director, and the young muscular man, an ex-marine.
I won’t give away the plot, but suffice to say the dénouement brought a tear to my rather jaded eye. This is a story of an elderly man who realises that he isn’t going to be getting any better, and decided to take charge of his life.
As such, it’s ultimately uplifting, in an odd sort of way, and Russell Labey is to be commended for a script which is human, touching, very funny, and very nearly perfectly paced, as well as for his exquisite and meticulous direction.
The set is simple, but the lighting and projections very effective, and affecting, especially towards the end, so congratulations to Mike Robertson and Louise Rhoades-Brown respectively.
This is a show which really does deserve to have a life after this run, and with this magnificent cast. In the meantime, don’t waste your time in thinking about it. Buy a ticket and go.