Paul Johnson | 26 Oct 2019 14:13pm
What a treat! There’s been a dearth of golden oldies on the London stage recently. Southside Players are to be thanked for dusting off Edna Ferber and George S Kaufman’s engaging but long neglected 1936 play Stage Door and giving it an airing in Balham this week.
Best known for the 1937 film of the same name starring Katherine Hepburn which wandered from the original script, Stage Door, an authentic slice of contemporary New York theatrical life during The Depression, has been unfairly forgotten; although I came across a musical version written for and staged by Central a couple of years back. With a cast of twenty-four (nineteen with some effective doubling here) one can see the attraction of that, so maybe the play is on the brink of being rediscovered after all. Can you hear me at the back, Mr Norris? In times when it is sometimes hard for community theatres to attract the range of good actors required for such projects, Southside are to be commended for tackling this potentially unwieldly piece – and pulling it off so successfully.
Ferber, best known for the novel Show Boat which was turned into the first ‘serious’ musical, and Kaufman (who also collaborated with Moss Hart notably on Once in a Lifetime and The Man Who Came to Dinner) were both members of the Algonquin Round Table, thus steeped in the culture of Broadway between the wars. Ferber’s plays and novels always featured strong, female characters and provided the emotional content in her collaborations, whilst Kaufman added the wit and cynicism. This play is authentically set in the Footlights Club, modelled on The Rehearsal Club, a rooming house for aspiring actresses (founded in 1912) where Ferber’s niece had resided. Later upcoming stars also lived there including, in the late ‘50s, the comedienne Carol Burnett
As well as providing a lively cross-section of theatrical types, the play tackles the tension between The Theatre and Hollywood and fears that the latter was in danger of vulgarising the profession. As Terry Randall, the most prominent inmate of The Footlights says bitterly: ‘…and then they put it in a tin can – like Campbell’s soup. And if you die the next day it doesn’t matter a bit. You don’t even have to be alive to act in pictures.’
Shadows of leading show business personalities lurk behind Terry’s suitors: Keith Burgess the left-wing playwright who, like Clifford Odets, sells out to fame and fortune in Hollywood – and the suave but kinder producer, David Kingsley, a dead ringer for Irving Thalberg who was one of Kaufman’s heroes and married and made a star of Norma Shearer. As Terry, Rachel Smith gives a delightfully tomboyish performance as an actress who refuses to compromise her artistic integrity – though it serves her well enough in the end – whilst Doug Dunn and Seb Keenan make Keith and David totally believable. There is also an endearing cameo from Aidan Steer, also the director of this production, as Terry’s father who, as a country doctor is losing out financially to upmarket psychiatry.
But this is very much a company show, and Steer has drawn a host of varied and pleasing performances from his cast who let you into their little world in West 53rd Street. As the rising movie star, Jean Maitland, Gabriella Chamberlain provides a nice contrast to her friend Terry – especially when she returns from Los Angeles as a glamorous star – whilst the wise-cracking Judith (the excellent Ify Ugboma) is in danger of stealing every scene in which she appears. Aisling Leow demonstrates her versatility by exchanging her poignant portrayal of Kaye in Act One (whose escape to the club from an abusive marriage drives her to scrounging rent money and, finally, suicide) for the very different and upbeat ‘hopeful’, Tony, in Act Two. The tragic sub-plot, which could so easily have tipped over into melodrama, is carefully handled.
In ensemble productions, there are often thankless continuity roles necessary to maintain the sequences between the different sets of characters. Judith Moeckell makes the most of the all-purpose maid, Mattie, and Barbara Jennings of Mrs Orcutt, the eccentrically-dressed manager of The Footlights, who balances a motherly approach towards her guests with occasional, necessary ruthlessness. In a smaller role, Tom Browne brings quiet charm to Sam Hastings, another inmate’s loyal beau. But everyone makes a useful contribution.
One small quibble, I’d have liked to have seen more theatricalia, maybe some facsimile stage posters, decorating the club? Otherwise the set is nicely furnished and lends itself to pleasing stage pictures. Costumes are a trifle hotch-potch, but the ‘30s is a tricky period to dress for both sexes, and the flavour of the times comes over, serving the characterisations well enough.
I was surprised, despite references to Katherine Cornell and The Lunts etc, how little the language of the piece had dated and the writing kept theatrical clichés and stereotypes more or less at bay. Overall, a well-paced and fluid production of a play which, if not quite a masterpiece, certainly deserves more frequent revival.
- : admin
- : 25/10/2019