Gods And Monsters Revealed At Southwark Playhouse

By Nicolas Chinardet Last edited 41 months ago
Gods And Monsters Revealed At Southwark Playhouse ★★★★☆ 4

Ian Gelder and Will Austin. Photo by Annabel Vere.

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

In the 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius enjoys a toast with Dr. Frankenstein: “To a new world of gods and monsters!” By the 1950s, when we meet him in his Hollywood retreat, the creator of that film, James Whale (played by Ian Gelder of Game of Thrones), is almost inhabiting such a world, certainly one of monsters.

Whale, in his late 60s, lives the bored, semi-reclusive life of a forgotten director of world-famous films. He has recently suffered a series of mild strokes which have left him with an "electric storm in [his] head" which brings back vivid memories of his first loves and the horrors of the first world war. And then, one day, when he lays eyes on the hunk of a man that is his new gardener, Clayton Boone, a former Marine, Whale believes he might just have found his last monster. As Whale befriends Boone, pretending he wants to draw his portrait, he slowly starts to tame and direct him into serving his ulterior motives.

The play is based on Christopher Bram's 1995 novel Father of Frankenstein and, more closely, on the 1998 award-winning film adaptation with Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser from which it takes its title. As such it is difficult not to draw comparisons between the two and sadly the play falls short on several points.

Director Russell Labey's use of the thrust stage configuration is not the most inclusive for the audience and so our advice is to sit near the middle of either side of the stage for best appreciation of the action. The narrative misses out on much of the intimacy needed for such a story in a space that feels too large, despite attempts to bring the set together with blown-up details of the original poster for Bride of Frankenstein. The film projections (by Louise Rhoades-Brown) used at certain points help somewhat, though they can be too ambiguous at times while the footage used at the very end of the show simply feels clichéd. Also questionable is the type of furniture chosen by Jason Denvir for his set which is more reminiscent of a front room in the Dudley of Whale's youth than the studio of a rich aesthete in golden age Hollywood.

This however does not prevent the small cast of five from delivering powerful performances, made all the more difficult for Joey Phillips and Will Rastall by the fact that they often have to quickly jump from one persona (and accent) to another in order to create the flashback sequences nicely woven within the main narrative. Lachele Carl, as the very loyal yet disapproving maid, is as stern and protective as needed by Gelder's stubborn and confused Whale, fixated as he is on his final gambit.

For his first professional stage appearance, Will Austin as Boone alternates deftly between solid brute and tender heart as he mellows into his liking for Whale. Austin’s physique (that of a multiple body-building champion) when finally revealed in all its alluring glory, is truly awe-inspiring, if perhaps too perfectly honed for a jobbing ex-marine, and certainly more outlandish than Whale claims when, nearing the climactic scene, he tells Boone he looks too human, luring him into posing naked in just a gas mask.

As a reflection on art, masculinity and male interactions, and particularly ageing and mortality, the play, compared to the Oscar-winning screenplay, remains an attractive and highly entertaining piece, full of humour but with a definite tinge of darkness.

Gods and Monsters is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway, Elephant and Castle, SE1 6BD until 7 March. Tickets are £18 (£16 cons). The production contains strobe lighting and nudity. Click here for an interview with members of the cast and here for the play's trailer. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 11 February 2015