14 July 2008

Moonlight and Magnolias -Tricycle Theatre Kilburn, Monday 14th July 2008


Three weeks into the filming of Gone With the Wind, producer David O. Selznick has halted production, dissatisfied with an inferior screenplay and a director whose style and pace are not in harmony with his own. Recognizing that his professional reputation, financial stability, societal status and even the fate of his family rest on the success of this enormous and risky project, Selznick summons the proven “script doctor” Ben Hecht and larger-than-life director Victor Fleming to his studio offices, determined to engage their services.

But obstacles soon arise - Hecht has not read the novel and is convinced that a Civil War picture will never make money. Fleming is in the middle of filming The Wizard of Oz and questions whether anyone — especially Hecht who is unfamiliar with the characters and the plot — is up to the monumental task of reducing a 1,030-page book into a 130-page screenplay. Enticed by the promise of a sizeable fee, Hecht reluctantly agrees to devote five days to the project; contracted under the studio system, Fleming has no other choice but to agree. With nothing but a stockpile of peanuts and bananas, Selznick locks the three men into his office and they begin the marathon creative session....

Oh the irony! I bet Trevor Nunn is spitting feathers. His multi-million pound production of Gone With The Wind closes after only 79 performances, while this tiny four-hander about the writing of the film is back at the Tricycle Theatre "by popular demand" and is playing to capacity audiences. It matters not one whit that the audience seems to be largely composed of Jewish matrons with lacquered coiffures backcombed to buggery and men wearing M&S summer jackets and toops so unconvincing that I had to be physically restrained at one point from pointing and shouting out "Wi.....ggyy, wi.....ggy!".

Given the subject matter, the popularity of the show and its source and the fact that it counterpointed the Nunn production to perfection, I thought I would love this. And I tried really hard, I really did. The evening got off to a really bad start thanks to the Tricycles policy of having all seats unreserved, making for an unholy scramble for seats, lots of saving of same with handbags, coats and programmes for latecomers and quite a lot of "Is that seat taken?" gesticulating by several mad old bags directed at people on the other side of the auditorium who weren't wearing their glasses and couldn't see that they were being gesticulated at. Him Indoors said that "People enjoy the fun of having unreserved seats - its so un-English". Well, I remain to be convinced of the "fun" of said scramble and demand the owners of the theatre damned well print numbers on their tickets. Its not as if the Tricycle is the Albert Hall, for chrissakes - it seats about 15. Or that's what it feels like. There's a small balcony (constructed of scaffolding) over which people flop like they're part of a Punch and Judy show, leading one of the more vocal idiots behind me to start a loud conversation with her friends about "ooooh, its just like being at the Globe! Have you ever been to the Globe? We have. Oh, what fun!" No, madam, its not like being at the Globe. The Globe performs Shakespeare, its not just off Kilburn High Road and its clientele dont perch their oversized bottoms on the backrest of your seat while they witter on to Judith and Manny from the Bridge Club, so sit down and belt up before I stick your umbrella where the sun dont' shine.

*Takes deep breath* OK, having got that off my chest...As I said, I really tried to like this. I was actually looking forward to it. But after 10 minutes or so, I was sitting there losing the will to live. Around me, the entire audience were practically screaming with laughter like hyaenas on LSD, fanning themselves with the programmes and gasping for breath, while I sat there increasingly bewildered, cross and completely unable to see what was so funny. OK, the script is quite amusing, that I will concede - but it was played so broad that, for me, it came perilously close to farce. There was more mugging on stage than you'd get on a Saturday night in a pub full of hoodies. Eyebrows were raised constantly (usually at the end of a line and with the dialogue given an upward inflexion) to such an extent that I thought they might fall off. The only thing that was missing was a sign saying "Funny line!" This show has a well written, intelligent and interesting script and, given the calibre of some of the performances, could be far better, wittier, cleverer and much more interesting if the performances were "pulled back" by about 75%. When you have a good script, entertaining worth listening to, dealing with a subject you know a bit about and enjoy and full of ideas, you don't need a custard pie in the face accompanied by "Wah waaah waaaaah waaaaaaaaah" from the orchestra pit (not that there was an orchestra pit, you understand - fortunately, for Him Indoors insisted on sitting in the middle of the front row so that I had to crane my neck up to see the stage and saw lots of the actors' nasal hair and not much else).

And then, of course, the three writers decide to lock themselves in the office for five days, with only huge piles of bananas and peanuts to sustain themselves. Cue dozens of rubber "banana skins" being hurled over the set during the blackout, with several bags of monkey nuts strewed about. At this point, the audience went into such paroxysms of hysteria ("Oh, Rachael, look! They're throwing banana skins about!") that I thought someone was going to do permanent damage to their colostomy bag. Thankfully, the performances became slightly more subdued and natural half way through Act 2, and the dialogue began to show itself for what it was - interesting, well written and with a lot to say about the film industry and the writing process. But, by then, I had more or less given up the will to live.

The best person on stage was Andy Nyman, playing David Selznick - but only during the moments when he wasn't gurning, flailing about, screeching or generally over-acting. I just wanted to slap Duncan Bell, guilty of all the above in spades. All that he was missing was a Whoopee Cushion and his performance would have been complete.

The title "Moonlight and Magnolias" is a quotation from the film (it doesnt appear in the book, giving the lie to the play's assertion that only Mitchell's original dialogue was used) - Rhett, having realised that Scarlett is trying to pull a fast one on him to get his money while he's in jail, says "You can drop the moonlight and magnolias, Scarlett, because it isn't working". And Moonlight and Magnolias didn't work for me either.

What the critics said:

All the critics were universally adoring (god only knows why) about this production - so much so that I really didn't see the point of putting any links. If you're that interested, go Google.

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