Pros: An excellent opportunity to see an experienced veteran of the stage and screen in a fabulously meaty leading role.
Cons: It clocks in with a substantial 135 minute running time, and the overly long first half can be rather to languid for its own good.
Gods and Monsters (originally a 1998 film starring Ian McKellen), based on Christopher Bram’s novel Father of Frankenstein, considers the career and fate of James Whale, monumental director, most famous for his adaptation of Frankenstein. The play explores Whale’s life and career and his slow dissolution into obscurity.Once he was known throughout the world, yet if it wasn’t for it’s likely that today only the cine-literate would remember his name. It’s a fate that many in Hollywood must one day endure, and Gods and Monsters examines Whale’s singular experience and reaction.
At the play’s outset, we join Whale in the eve of his life, living in semi-obscurity, tired with Hollywood and frustrated, having been pigeon-holed by this one film.
Ian Gelder is fantastic in the central role. He is required to display two very different sides to Whale. There is the side he shows to his guests, which has become a rather grotesque caricature of a slightly lurid and predatory Hollywood homosexual. Gelder gives the sense that Whale has fallen into this role and has now played it for so long it feels like a second skin. Here Gelder captures the sharpness, the hint of danger to Whale’s interactions that gives the play a much needed tension.
However we also see there is a glimmer behind the eyes that suggests the real Whale is buried somewhere beneath. It is here, where Gelder has the opportunity to look backwards, that he really shines. Labey has given him some lengthy monologues to work with and there is a quite splendid reminiscence about beef dripping that takes the audience away from the swimming pools of Hollywood right back to the heart of the industrial working classes.
Gelder is well supported by Will Austin as Clayton Boone, a Missourian so naïve that I felt it might be stretching it even for the 1950s. The arrival of Boone sets the play on its course and Austin displays a real presence that ensures the audiences eyes are fixed firmly upon him.
Whilst the cast work hard to ensure that the action remains fluid on stage, the play itself is mainly set in Whale’s house and at times it can become rather static. With the audience seated on three sides of the stage I recommend that people choose to sit on the sides rather than front-on. From these positions they will get a complete view of the actors and will feel fully involved with the on-stage action.
The play runs for 135 minutes and whilst it rarely felt ponderous, it did feel like there are opportunities for it to be shortened. It contains a great deal of interesting information but I would question whether it is all entirely necessary. The art of a really great biographical play is to remain sharply focused on the core narrative throughout and so be able to distil a great man’s life into an evening’s entertainment. Russell Labey’s stage adaptation of Gods and Monsters doesn’t quite achieve this greatness but it is still an impressive attempt to give life to the man who gave life to a monster.
Director: Russell Labey
Producers: Danielle Tarento and Jason Haigh-Ellery
Booking Until: 7 March 2015
Booking Link: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/the-large/gods-and-monsters/