BREAKING NEWS: ‘Enjoyable play found at Royal Court.’ Generally, the Court likes to send its customers home feeling depressed, guilty, frightened or suicidal. And, generally, it succeeds. The Kid Stays in the Picture is based on the memoirs of Hollywood super-mogul Robert Evans. Director Simon McBurney uses artful lighting and complex staging effects to disguise the fact that this is just a glorified book-reading of the kind broadcast by Radio 4 every day of the week. The performers are concealed by deep shadows or behind screens and this threatens to break a basic rule of live theatre: an actor who can’t be seen can’t be heard. But the performers are audible enough and one of them, Danny Huston, has a wonderfully gnarled and leathery voice. Happily, the cast are in no danger of fluffing their lines. An autocue fixed to the gallery beams the script direct to the stage.
What makes the show stand out is the gossipy, crowd-pleasing material. Evans (real name Shapera) was a handsome New Yorker who fell into acting by chance after bumping into Norma Shearer at a swimming-pool. Cast as a bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises, he asked the producer why a real matador hadn’t been hired. ‘A real matador doesn’t look real.’ His career soon faltered and by the early 1960s he was back in New York flogging women’s clothing. He bought an option on an obscure novel, The Detective, which soared to the top of the bestseller lists. Hollywood came to negotiate and Evans played his limited hand expertly. He demanded, and won, permanent tenure at Paramount studios. He spent the next decade making a slate of films that have become enduring fixtures in our collective memory: Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Love Story, The Italian Job, True Grit and Marathon Man.
Evans, who was Jewish, conceived The Godfather as an all-Italian production. He wanted audiences to ‘smell the pasta’. A dearth of Italian directors led him to hire the inexperienced Francis Ford Coppola, who hailed his first two-hour cut as ‘a masterpiece’. Evans disagreed and forced Coppola to restore scenes that enriched its emotional texture and increased its length by 50 per cent.
Casting Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby brought Evans into conflict with her husband, Frank Sinatra. The singer insisted that she quit the film, mid-shoot. Evans persuaded Farrow that her performance would bag her an Oscar. She completed the picture. Sinatra divorced her. She didn’t win an Oscar.
Evans was an obsessive who spent 18 hours a day in the studio, and this show reveals how a good producer differs from an exceptional one. Evans succeeded because he could assume a multiplicity of roles: hustler, cop, diplomat, strongman, baby-sitter, blackmailer, father confessor and, above all, prophet. He was one of those visionaries who can divine a great movie from a one-paragraph synopsis. He was blessed with good fortune as well but it ran out in 1980 when he was convicted of drugs offences. His next big picture, The Cotton Club, was set in New York and the project was so dear to his heart that he wanted to direct it himself. Eventually, he was persuaded to hire Coppola, who produced a handsome flop that feels like a pale imitation of his Godfather franchise. Evans is still alive and this show is his latest production. It’s fun, coarse, bitchy and light as a feather. But why London? LA is the place for this Tinseltown tattle-fest.
Love in Idleness is a play with more parents than Elton John’s kids. Trevor Nunn was looking for a modern classic to revive when he came across two Rattigan dramas he’d never heard of. Less Than Kind was a wartime script with political themes that no one wished to produce. Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt discovered the script and asked Rattigan to rewrite it along more commercial lines. The result, Love in Idleness, was staged in 1944 but hasn’t been produced in London since. In New York it appeared in 1946 under the title O Mistress Mine. Rattigan later regretted tinkering with Less Than Kind and Trevor Nunn has tried to honour the playwright’s change of heart by creating a ‘conflation of the two versions’. The result is always interesting but rarely as gripping as the finest Rattigan. Eve Best stars as Olivia, a middle-aged widow, living in sin with a glamorous and snobbish Canadian who has a top job in the Tory cabinet. Olivia’s affair outrages her left-leaning son, Michael, who wants to build a new post-war Britain for the benefit of the workers, not the toffs. The show is highly watchable. Eve Best is one of those rare thesps who seems to be channelling a real person on stage rather than delivering a human photocopy. Her unobtrusive dominance is a delight.