Writer: Claudio Macor
Director: Bryan Hodgson
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
With current stories of improprieties in the film industry seeming to be as plentiful as gold stars on Hollywood Boulevard, this revival of Claudio Macor’s The Tailor-Made Man could hardly be more timely. The play is based on the true story of William “Billy” Haines, a star of silent movies and 11 talkies, whose career collapsed like a house of cards when studio bosses took a stand against his homosexual lifestyle.
The play was adapted into a musical, generally well received when it ran at London’s Arts Theatre in 2013, but this 25th Anniversary production reverts to the original non-singing version. If the name William Haines prompts the question “William who?” this could be because all his films were consigned to locked vaults for a generation by MGM and even still photographs of him were destroyed.
Arriving in Hollywood in 1922, wise-cracking extrovert Billy quickly becomes a tailor-made man, moulded by his studio in the image of the all-American male. However, Billy’s private life threatens to tarnish the image and, on hearing of the latest Haines indiscretion, Louis B Mayer (a fearsome Dean Harris) growls: “How can I take my daughter to the pictures when I know that William Haines is a fagelah?”
Parts of the story are told talking into a camera by the love of Billy’s life, Jimmie Shields (touchingly played by Tom Berkeley) who is content to hide in the shadows while his partner steals the limelight and to overlook his persistent promiscuity. Fresh-faced and exuberant, Mitchell Hunt’s Billy looks too innocent to be a convincing predator but Bryan Hodgson’s revival leaves no room for doubt as to what is going on. Billy’s actions in exploiting his star power to proposition, grope and seduce young men cause some discomfort when looked at through the prism of modern sensitivities.
For all this, Macor’s aim is never to demonise Billy. Rather he seeks to condemn the hypocritical studio system and, ultimately, to tell an uplifting story of enduring love conquering adversity. When Hollywood eventually expels Billy, he is able to call upon a latent talent for interior design and, along with Jimmie, forge a new career in which he was to achieve considerable success. Hodgson’s slick, well-paced production moves smoothly between satirical comedy and tender romance.
On occasions, Hodgson allows over-acting that may go beyond the need to emulate the style of the silent era, but, more often, strong cameo performances lift the production, particularly in the play’s more leaden scenes. Henry Felix shows resilience as the young screenwriter Victor Darro, who fends off Billy’s unwanted advances and becomes the couple’s loyal friend; Edwin Flay is strikingly sleazy as Howard Strickling, MGM’s PR man who will resort to anything, even setting up marriages of convenience, to promote the right image for the studio’s stars; and Yvonne Lawlor goes deliciously over the top playing leading lady Marion Davies, as does Rachel Knowles in the dual roles of Carole Lombard and Pola Negri.
Mayer makes the prediction that every gay actor in the future will hear the words “remember William Haines” before thinking about coming out of the closet. It is a chilling moment that underscores the modern relevance of a play that sheds further light on the continuing ills of Hollywood.
Runs until 25 November 2017 | Image: Andreas Lambi