Review – Gods and Monsters – Southwark Playhouse

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Growing up as a teenaged goth girl who associated with lots of gay men, it was a natural that when Gods and Monsters came out, I would rush to the cinema to see it. But 1998 is now a long time ago, and I could barely remember anything of the movie I’d seen nearly two decades ago. Something about an English director and a very sexy gardener, 1950s homophobia and … Frankenstein. There was sex and nudity – I remembered that – but it had mostly gone fuzzy. I can’t say I walked into the Southwark Playhouse to see this new adaptation as a blank slate, but what was there was pretty fuzzy.

So now it’s 2015 and I’m reevaluating the story as well as evaluating the play from a changed perspective, as a more mature person as well as a more informed cineaste and theater fan. I’m much more aware of the effect of World War I on the psyche, thanks to eight years of living in the UK and the wealth of recent productions kicked off by the centenary anniversary of the start of the Great War. I’m also, as a middle aged woman, interested in the depiction of strokes on the stage. And finally, I have a more historically informed picture of what it meant to be gay in the United States in the decades before the 1980s – my interest in gay culture has continued, but it’s deeper and richer than it was when I lived in Phoenix, Arizona. And so, to see this play, examining the mental state of a WWI vet after a stroke, I find myself thinking that it was an opportunity missed to do something thoughtful and relevatory about the human condition. Instead, we (the audience) got a salacious hagiography, with us in the role of Kay (Joey Phillips), the (horribly overacted) biographer of director James Whale (Ian Gelder), watching over his shoulder as he slowly attempts to seduce handsome gardener Clayton Boone (Will Austin).

I can’t deny the audience seemed to lap the show up, but I was really sad that an obvious element was nearly entirely skipped over: Whale’s stroke has left his mind impaired in a variety of ways, and there seems to be a clear implication that he, as if struck by lightning, has become his own monster, unable to control his mind as it wanders back in forth in time, perhaps in truth become a monster. But though the flashback scenes to his youth and military service are set up clearly enough to show their impact on his ability to be in the present, to me it seemed he could have just been having a PTSD episode. Strokes can cause a lot of other damage as well, and listening to Whale recount the many people he’d worked with in perfect clarity, it seemed hard to believe he’d really taken that much damage from the stroke. And as a man depressed enough to be considering suicide, I’d expect a far greater impetus to do it than just having some uncomfortable memories come up.

If I was imagining this show was trying to depict his sexual appetites as monstrous, it’s not an easy sell, especially given the fact he’d lived openly as gay most of his life. Trying to seduce a strong, solid gardener? Not monster material at all. Not being successful? I’d expect that wasn’t something worth killing himself over, although it would have been an easy out story wise for this to have been so. So it’s a bit depressing that there seems to be no gods or monsters in this play, just a tired old man who in my eyes was pushy and a bit of a quitter.

However, the core element of humanity played true in the development of the relationship between Whale and Boone. Boone (Will Austin), with his nearly cartoon-esque physique, is not a very deep character and may actually make no sense historically, but I found his softening of his attitude about gay men genuinely touching. He is a kind man, despite his killer (literally) physique; and this made it hard for me to deal with watching Whale pursue him in an almost predatory fashion. Whale wants, not Boone’s body, but his mind, his will, his sense of morality. He wants to turn him into a monster. But he ends the play accepting him as a fellow human being. It would have been hard to swallow, but Ian Gelder’s rock-solid performance just gave me no room to believe in him as anything else other than the character he portrayed. I only wish that the character of the cinema history student and the maid Maria (Lachele Carl) could have been toned down to levels suitable for an intimate theater – this, more than the nearly two hour long first act, had me questioning whether or not I could stand to stay for the second act. But Gelder holds up nearly the entire show on his much thinner shoulders – for him, it is a tour de force. But the show, overall, is bloated and too grating for me to recommend. If you’re a fan of the movie, you want to see three handsome men get their kit off, or you have a thing for old Hollywood, you’ll probably have a good evening; but for me, the sum was less than the parts (and I did see quite a few parts). Perhaps the writer should have been less desirous of following the original movie script – but I can’t say as it’s been so long since I’ve seen it.

(This review is for opening night, February 10, 2015. Gods and Monsters continues through March 7th.)

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