The Tailor-Made Man
White Bear Theatre
Reviewed – 9th November 2017
“the dialogue cracks like a whip and never slips into sentimentality or false romanticism”
History has a habit of repeating itself. The current media spotlight on misconduct in the Movie World is nothing new. Neither is the hypocrisy that surrounds it, albeit nowadays it is that much more visible. “The Tailor-Made Man” at the White Bear Theatre is a timely reminder of this fact. This play has come full circle too. Claudio Macor’s play premiered in 1992, and was later developed as a musical at the Arts Theatre in 2013, and has now reverted back to straight drama for this twenty-fifth anniversary.
The ‘Tailor-Made Man’ of the title is William “Billy” Haines, a popular silent screen MGM movie star who was fired by Louis B Mayer because he was gay, and because he refused to give up his lifelong partner, Jimmie Shields, and marry the silent screen vamp Pola Negri. As punishment, his films were removed from release and sealed in the MGM vaults never to be seen again, and his studio photographs destroyed. It was an attempt to erase him completely from movie history.
This is the focus of the text, but Macor, being a master of his craft, effortlessly weaves their very human story into the greater tapestry of 1920s Hollywood. His observations of that world are spot-on, and he is unafraid to rip into the high-flown hypocrisies and homophobic double standards of ‘Tinsel Town’. Aided by a strong cast, the dialogue cracks like a whip and never slips into sentimentality or false romanticism.
Mitchell Hunt plays William Haines. It is difficult to play a love story without affecting the over emotionalism, but Hunt pulls it off. Almost too well, for initially we have no sympathy for the character whatsoever. It is testament to the writing though, and to the acting, that we realise this is a deliberate ploy. Billy Haines was very much a product of the machinations of Hollywood. Once removed, forcibly, from the studios, and free of it all, he is a delight. Hunt smoothly depicts this transformation – the arc of his journey is palpable.
Tom Berkeley’s Jimmie Shields is undoubtedly the backbone of the piece. Intermittently stepping out of the action he narrates, to camera, his own take on the story; a device that reinforces the power of his love. Mention must be made too, of Rachel Knowles, who plays Pola Negri. Still pining for Rudolph Valentino, her monologue describing her failure to make the transition from the silent pictures to the talkies is sublimely delivered, throwing pathos, grief, sadness and comedy all into the same melting pot. A potpourri of ingredients that could so easily go wrong, but she dishes it up with exquisite flavour. She has some of the best lines. In fact it is the mix of gravity and comedy that lifts this piece of theatre. Before the subject matter becomes too earnest the cast remember the importance of being comic.
But the play is the thing. This is a strong piece of writing, made stronger by the fact that it is a true story. A play of hope, of survival, of being yourself and, above all, of triumph. And to that end, this production is clearly a triumph.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography Andreas Lambis
THE TAILOR MADE MAN
is at the White Bear Theatre until 25th November