Writer: Tony Cox
Director: Jimmy Walters
The tumultuous lives of classic movie starlets form Judy Garland to Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe have been the inspiration for many plays, cabarets and one woman shows. Now Tony Cox focuses on a little-known episode in the life of Merle Oberon who, while under the care of a leading facial trauma surgeon in 1941, met scarred pilot Richard Hillary and began an affair. Receiving its world premiere as a Zoom rehearsed reading streamed to YouTube, The Skin Game proves an insightful study in fame and identity.
Fired form her latest movie and told to repair small scars on her face, film star Merle Oberon becomes the patient of Archie McIndoe, a reputed plastic surgeon working with burned RAF pilots. There she meets Richard Hillary recovering from bodily scarring, and, as their inevitable affair begins, Hillary’s own fame rapidly increases forcing him to question his role in the Second World War. When Oberon’s friend Mary Brooker also falls for Hillary, the resulting love triangle leaves everyone questioning who they really are.
Cox’s play very quickly overcomes the limitations of the online platform to draw the audience into this unusual and compelling wartime tale. The character of Hillary is particularly well drawn, capturing the complex interplay between duty and self-preservation, fear and incapacity that characterised his feelings in 1941. And there are lots of compelling duologues, full of revelations, that really come to life in the rehearsed reading format, giving a strong sense of the wartime and Hollywood era, circumstance, and the agonised minds of the protagonists.
The final third of the play, though intriguing, changes narrative horses in mid-stream, largely dispensing with Oberon to focus on Hillary’s affair with Brooker who never feels quite fully drawn (despite an excellent performance from Rachel Pickup) so the audience’s investment in their age-gap relationship is hard to sustain. Oberon and Hillary are famous enough but why the 45-year old Brooker was alluring to the 21-year old Hillary and what need the affair filled in her needs more explanation.
As Hillary, George Smale is quite the find, graduating from the Drama Centre this year, and with only a day’s rehearsal, delivering a full-bloodied image of the traumatised airman. Taking time to add make-up to his face and body to create burn marks, as well as using bandages for his hands and face, Smale captures the intensity of a very young man whose once exhilarating lifestyle has been entirely upended, vividly presenting Hillary’s arrogance and cruelty, along with his daredevil spirt and plenty of pathos as his desire to keep fighting re-emerges.
Skye Hallam’s Oberon is far less emotional, as a woman used to fame and the effect of her presence on civilians. But Hallam suggests a deeper vulnerability under the society girl sheen, a fear that others will know and despise her true identity. A key revelation about Oberon’s childhood perhaps comes too late in the play to have its full effect on shaping her motivation but Hallam offers plenty of stoical reserve as Oberon attempts to reclaim her former star status.
Director Jimmy Walters manages the cuts between actors delivering dialogue well, sometimes showing a single performer to create greater intensity and sometimes two or three actors side-by-side to reflect the flowing conversation. The Skin Game has a lot of potential and even in this pared back format it is clear how enjoyable and potentially moving this play could be when fully staged. Intimate and a little nostalgic, a perfect piece for the Jermyn Street Theatre.