Finishing the Picture – Finborough Theatre, London

Writer: Arthur Miller

Director: Phil Willmott

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

To describe Arthur Miller’s final play as a thinly-veiled slice of autobiography would be an understatement. Set in Reno, Nevada in 1960 during the troubled shoot of a Hollywood film, it is a clear dramatic account of events surrounding shooting of The Misfits, whose screenplay was written by Miller and which starred his then-wife Marilyn Monroe as their marriage was breaking down.

In the stage version, the actress in the picture is Kitty – who, despite having a luminescent screen presence, is plagued by self-doubt and finding solace in repeated drug use. As the shoot runs out of time and money, the production team wrestle with the prospect that they may not be able to get Kitty clean enough to finish the movie.

But while there are several real-life parallels to the characters on stage – from screenwriter Paul (a not entirely sympathetic autobiographical representation of Miller) to Stephen Billington’s steely-eyed film director Derek Clemson, whose safari suits and heavy gambling problem evoke memories of The Misfitsdirector John Huston, and Nicky Goldie and Tony Wredden as fictionalised versions of acting coaches Paula and Lee Strasberg – this is, as director Phil Wilmott has realised in the Finborough’s fine production, not a story of this film in particular.

Instead, it is Miller holding up a mirror to the entire Hollywood machine, and how it is culpable in the destruction of its most vulnerable stars. Even as all the production members attempt to cajole Kitty into emerging from her hotel room and returning to set, there is a sense that their supposed concern for her is secondary: they will say whatever they must to save the picture.

Truth is, Miller’s first act is nothing spectacular. All the players are introduced, and Kitty’s presence exists only as someone who is talked about (and not in the most flattering terms – more than once, she is referred to as a “horse”, in the sense of an animal who is put to work). Goldie’s larger than life acting coach, who demands a suite and a car for herself, regardless of whether she needs either, is the sort of comedy caricature which, while done exceedingly well, instils fear that this is going to be another anodyne behind-the-scenes pastiche.

Of course, with Miller’s razor-sharp dialogue and some sterling performances (most notably Billington and Oliver Le Sueur’s sympathetic producer) there would still be much to entertain. But the second act propels Finishing the PIctureinto another league.

Essentially a series of monologues with each character attempting to converse with Kitty, a pulsating cymbal jazz beat from sound designer Nicola Chang brings with it a sense of urgency, the occasional trumpet howl substituting for cries of despair from the unseen Kitty.

The manipulation and ulterior motives mix with those characters whose concern may be genuine. Billington’s Clemson softens slightly, while Rachel Handshaw as Kitty’s assistant Edna is afforded a sense of personal insight that many of the men do not.

Collectively, though, the ensemble do not seem to appreciate their culpability in the downfall of women like Monroe, and even by the play’s conclusion there is a sense that, even as Kitty has a slight chance of recovery, it may only be temporary.

The result is an exemplary evening of drama, breathing life in to a Miller play whose previous only production failed to bring out its true class. As an indictment of Hollywood, it can be seen as a companion piece to the Finborough’s recent musical The Biograph Girl: as a tribute to Miller, it restores his final work to the status it deserves.

Runs until 7 July 2018 | Image: Contributed

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