JOYCE MCMILLAN on MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS at Perth Theatre, REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL at Dundee Rep, and SLICE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 22.3.12
Moonlight And Magnolias 4 stars ****
Reasons To Be Cheerful 5 stars *****
Slice 3 stars ***
HE WAS RUNNING OUT OF MONEY, he had a lot to prove to his powerful father-in-law, and he had just sacked the world-famous director of his latest movie project, and binned much of the script. Yet he was still determined to finish the production of what would be the biggest and most expensive film ever made; and, in the end, the greatest box-office success in the history of the movies.
That was the position in which David O. Selznick found himself in February 1939, three weeks into the filming of Margaret Mitchell’s great Civil War romance, Gone With The Wind; and from the opening moments of this new Perth production of Moonlight And Magnolias, Ron Hutchinson’s fierce comedy about this key moment in Selznick’s career, it’s clear that director Rachel O’Riordan and her team have an impressive grasp of all the dimensions of the drama. The curtain rises, in Gary McCann’s design, on a memorable photographic image of the elegant facade of Selznick Studios – a large Hollywood mansion in the classical style – projected onto a gauze as high and wide as the Perth stage. The house looks impressive, as it basks in evening sunlight; but also fragile, like a fragment of European-style culture, set down temporarily in a desert town on America’s far west coast.
And it’s inside this house that the drama unfolds, as the bullish and tirelessly dynamic Selznick seizes on top Hollywood script-doctor Ben Hecht, and substitute director Victor Fleming, and locks himself up with them in his office for a torrid five days, until they emerge with a revised script. The play’s central comic impulse comes from the fact – apparently historically accurate – that Hecht had not even had time to read the book; so Selznick and Fleming act out the story for him, while he rattles away at the typewriter.
It’s a brilliant dramatic situation, superbly sustained by Steven McNicoll as Selznick, and by Joseph Chance and Benny Young as Hecht and Fleming. One of the play’s recurring themes is the conflict between Selznick – a Jewish boy from Pittsburgh determined to prove himself in the world’s most glamorous industry – and Hecht, a more politically-conscious Jew who has reservations about a story so sympathetic to the old slave-owning south, and is ever-conscious of the gathering nightmare in Europe. And if some of the play’s many shrill shouting-matches seem less meaningful than these, it’s still easy to sympathise with the intensity of pressure that surrounded these remarkable men, at that moment in history; and to admire the clarity and energy of a production that signals another major success for Rachel O’Riordan, in her fine first season at Perth.
Radicalism is an unpredictable quality at any time; but as Moonlight And Magnolias reminds us, it often emerges at moments when people with a real lived experience of oppression suddenly find a cultural voice that wins them huge popular acclaim. This week’s visiting show at Dundee Rep – created by the UK’s leading disability-aware company, Graeae – is Paul Sirett’s magnificent Ian Dury tribute musical Reasons To be Cheerful; and although the story is set firmly in the year 1979, just after Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister, its combination of fierce anti-Tory politics, and vigorous, sexy self-assertion by a company which includes many actors with disabilities, seems startlingly contemporary.
Reasons To Be Cheerful features a simple, sturdy soap-opera plot about the coming-of-age of Vinnie, a teenage lad with a boring job and a dying father. The great strength of the show, though, lies in the songs, performed with terrific energy and flair by the seven-strong acting ensemble, and a six-piece band including fine vocalist John Kelly; and accompanied by some superb animations and graphics. The words of songs like Spasticus Autisticus, Billericay Dickie, and the great anthem Sex And Drugs And Rock’n’Roll, are funny, politically acute, and hugely theatrical in themselves. And it’s a tribute to Graeae’s Jenny Sealey, and her brilliance as a director, that Reasons To Be Cheerful emerges not only as a funny, energetic and moving show, but also one that pulses with a deep, natural human energy – erotic and political – that now often seems missing from conventional theatre, even at its most superficially sexy.
All of which leaves Mel Giedroyc’s debut play Slice – part of the Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime season – looking a shade tentative, although it has its own radical ambitions. As their mother lies dying in the next room, three fortysomething sisters gather in the kitchen of the old family home, where Victoria – the one who has stayed at home to care for mother – is compulsively making her daily sponge cake for a woman too sick to eat it. Eldest sister Madeleine arrives from New York, obsessed by her glamorous job; the youngest Charlotte from next door, where she lives in cloying domestic bliss with her husband and five children.
The point of the play is that mother turns out to have been a monster, a world-class bullying hypocrite who has, in different ways, ruined the lives of all three daughters. It’s a tragic situation, and Mel Giedroyc’s main problem is that she can’t quite decide how funny she wants to make it; her series of slightly over-egged cake images keep sliding uneasily between comedy and tragedy. The play has a splendid cast, though, in Lesley Hart, Fletcher Mathers and Louise Ludgate; and I was left feeling that I had seen something more like the draft first episode of a continuing series, than a self-contained short play, with a confident voice of its own.
Moonlight And Magnolias at Perth Theatre until 31 March; Reasons To be Cheerful at Dundee Rep, and Slice at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both until Saturday.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
Steven McNicoll is one of the finest actors on the Scottish stage; and he finds a role worthy of his huge talent in the complex, brilliant, bullying David O. Selznick of Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight And Magnolias. In an age of macho movie producers, McNicoll’s Selznick emerges as a man so in love with his project that he identifies intensely with every part of it, transforming himself at the drop of a hat from Scarlett O’Hara to Rhett Butler and back again; an obsessive movie-maker who treats his employees outrageously, but is also thrillingly willing to make a fool of himself, for his art.