Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Gods and Monsters at Southwark Playhouse by Sister Morticia

 Image Credit: Southwark Playhouse
(Accessed from

'Gods and Monsters' is adapted from the book 'Father of Frankenstein' by Christopher Bram and tells the story of James Whale, who directed the original Frankenstein films, at the end of his life after he has suffered a series of strokes.

He is a forgotten director, living in Hollywood with his housekeeper, Marianne, who looks after him and worries about him, as well as chiding him and despairing of his proclivities.  Whale was a rare man for the 1950s, living an openly homosexual lifestyle.

One day a young college film student comes to talk Whale.  Perfectly played by Joey Phillips, all bright eyed, breathless excitement, beside himself with coup of being able to interview his hero.  Whale tries to talk to him about his film career, but young Kaye wants only to hear about the Frankenstein films. Whale is a little annoyed by this, but takes the opportunity to enjoy the company of an admiring young man, and decides to entertain himself.

“For every question you ask me, you must remove one item of clothing,” he tells Kaye, who is initially shocked but quickly begins to understand the game and is happy to play along, weighing his questions until he is eventually stripped down to his underpants.

Talking about his career stirs up memories in Whale's stroke-damaged mind. With a flash of lightning, he is taken back to his own student days, back in Dudley where he watches his younger self (now played by Will Rastall) at art college, life drawing with a fellow student in an afternoon that ends up as a happy, sexual encounter between the boys.

Back in the present, this vivid memory causes Whale to collapse – frightening Kaye and bringing Marianne in to scold them both and bring the medication.

Whale is plagued by memories and hallucinations – there is a constant storm raging in his brain. Trips to the neurologist confirm that this is result of the strokes and there is no cure. This is how his life will be, reality and memory will blur into one without warning and he can no longer trust his senses.

Back at home, Whale's attention is drawn to the lawn boy; a muscular gardener, working near the windows, mowing the grass, cutting the hedges. Whale goes out to introduce himself and chat.  The gardener is Clayton Boone, an ex-marine and self-professed 'hick from Missouri'. Whale invites him in for iced tea and lets Boone know that he was once quite famous in Hollywood, explaining that he was a film director. Clayton is fascinated by Whale's artwork, and eventually Whale asks if Clayton would pose for him.

At first Boone is wary of this, but Whale assures him that he wants to draw only his face, nothing more, and that he will pay him per hour, the same as he would for cutting lawns, and a time is arranged. Ian Gelder deftly conveys gentle innuendos that amuse Whale, but that Boone is oblivious to.  Marianne eyes all this with suspicion; fearing that it will set off another stroke, but Whale dismisses her concerns.

As the drawing sessions continue, Whale and Boone get to know one another. Boone is initially uncomfortable being scrutinised, studied and asked to remove his shirt as “it will not do – it ruins the frame of the face!” But they talk.  More memories surface for Whale – more faces from the past to haunt him.

Boone arrives early for a session, and is met by Marianne who makes her disapproval  of the situation very clear to him. Eventually she explains to a shocked Boone that Mr Whale is a homosexual, and that these drawing sessions may not be a good thing for either of them.

Boone is disbelieving – he has never met such a man. Later he asks Whale if he's ever been married. “Oh, not in the legal sense...” Leading Whale to explain that he'd had a male partner for thirty years. But still they talk, find understanding.  Sharing their own stories of being in the military.  Boone was an ex-Marine, and Whale had fought in World War One - “the Great War.  You Americans had a good war, but we had a Great War.”

Talk of the War brings back vivid memories; suddenly he is watching himself as a young officer, back in the trenches, showing a young soldier the lights over No Man's Land and listening to the German guns a few hundred yards away, back in the mud and the cold and the wet and the horror and loss...

Will Austin is a powerful, physical presence as Clayton Boone; awkward as a model but fascinated by Whale, and watching the relationship between them develop into trust and a strange friendship is captivating.  His character grows as he learns more about Whale and his life. Ian Gelder plays Whale with a slight twinkle in his eye and a strong spirit, but with the frustration of a man who knows that he is old, physically broken and at the mercy of his failing body. He is a master of the nuance, and perfectly captures the moments of magic and those other moments where Whale struggles to speak or find the right word due to the impairment of the stroke.  Lachele Carl is wonderful as Marianne; the Hispanic housekeeper who knows that her employer needs to be looked after and saved from himself.  She employs the dead pan humour and exasperated air of a woman who cannot entirely agree with Whale's lifestyle, but thinks the world of him and would protect him at all costs.

A very strong, atmospheric production which relies on strong character-driven writing, it has a strange and fascinating relationship at it's heart, which builds inexorably towards something dark and disturbing. and a very talented cast bringing those characters to back life. Definitely a show worth seeing!

Sister Morticia
10th February 2015


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