I’ve not seen the 1998 movie Gods and Monsters, or much of James Whale’s black-and-white Frankenstein franchise – and you don’t need to have either to be entirely gripped by the plot and the outcome of this terrific piece of new writing.

Whale is a famous Brit expat director eking out his final days in Los Angeles. In a kind of gay Sunset Boulevard he’s a ‘dinosaur’ to the film student who’s come to interview him. Troubled with intermittent dementia, the first world war flashbacks and lightning flashes in his head are smartly realised in Ian Gelder’s magnificent, archaeologically layered performance which makes handbrake turns between camp seduction and frighteningly convincing rage.

The object of his artistic affection, in a momentary shift from Norma Desmond to Lady Chatterley, is the visiting gardener played in a stunning professional debut by Will Austin whose performance really has ‘entirely convincing’ lettered through it like rock. He is so perfectly the hard-working polite and respectful all-American steak-and-potatoes boy he could have stepped from the pages of Mark Twain. His artful and precise modulation of the character in the first act is what makes the heightened exchanges in the second so thrilling.

The writing, by Russell Labey who also directs, is tremendous – and his gift for dialogue is extraordinary if he can replicate so well both the speech patterns of Pennine Lancashire (in Whistle Down The Wind) and the backchat of the Hollywood elite. Critics were scribbling furiously to copy down all the quotable lines, I’ve never seen quite so many busy notepads in one auditorium.

It’s plays like this that make the constant round of fringe theatre worth the effort.

A lascivious coven of bloggers salivated in the interval over Austin’s physique.  It would be unfair to judge it if you had not already appraised the craft of his acting but he’s also a personal trainer who has crafted an equally impressive torso with balconied pectorals and a butt which could provide shelving for a sizeable china collection.

Is it quibbling to notice this is very much a 21st century gym-and-creatine creation rather than the fifties equivalent of a Johnny Weismuller or Steve Reeves?  There is nudity – in fact this is a three-dick play as both Austin and the two young actors who play most of the flashback roles also disrobe, but even if they kept their pants on the man on man interaction would still be tense and occasionally lyrical in the carefully shadowed subtlety of Mike Robertson’s lighting plot.

This could have been a two-hander but Labey sensibly expanded the cast to illustrate Whale’s back story.  Will Rastall is excellent as his doctor morphing into his wartime self, but Joey Phillips seemed just too camp as the film student. Even though James Whale should be rightly celebrated for being openly gay throughout the 20s and 30s, such overt flamboyance in the McCarthy ‘lavender scare‘ era would have got Phillips’ character arrested.  Lachele Carl plays the disapproving hispanic maid and conscience of the piece Maria and has some nicely admonitory moments in her exchanges with Gelder, but occasionally her interpretation pitches precariously close to Chita Rivera in The Ritz.

But these are small cavils: Gods and Monsters feels original and authentic, the story is a bullseye choice for dramatization, and the realisation is excellent – maybe it’s still a little bit in development since friends who saw previews suggested there had been changes since, and whilst a longer first half is essential to manage the dramatic tension it could still do with a trim … but it certainly deserves a life well beyond what should be a hugely successful run at Southwark.

 

 

@paulinlondon and I did our usual ‘eleven o’clock number’ and made this AudioBoom straight out of the theatre