Gods and Monsters, now playing at the Southwark Playhouse is a showcase of incredible performances from its terrific cast and an engaging story. Oh and there is a bit of full frontal nudity too.
Based on the novel Father of Frankenstein (which was also the source material for the film of the same name), the story is a blend of fact and fiction. Age, memory, fame, youth and loss collide in the story of the last few months in the life of English director James Whale.
Whale director and creator of the first two Frankenstein films, had a moderately successful career in Hollywood which enabled him to live comfortably in Los Angeles. He was also openly gay. But following a series of strokes in his sixties, he lost his ability to prevent painful memories from his past flooding back. And without giving too much away, his most successful creation, the monster in Frankenstein, seems to become something far more personal.
The piece starts with Whale recovering from the strokes. Sitting with his doctor he soon finds the doctor morphing into his younger self on the front line during the Great War. A young film student who comes over to interview him about his films and finds himself in an interview game of strip poker becomes his lost love from the front line.
It is an extraordinary performance by Ian Gelder as Whale. At first you could be forgiven for thinking that he is a sly (perhaps slightly dotty), dirty old man. But he projects much more vulnerability and fragility as the piece unfolds. The arrival of a new gardener inspires Whale to take up painting again but things do not appear as they at first seem.
Will Austin as Whale’s new gardener Clayton has a dominating physical presence on stage. There is not an undeveloped muscle on him by the look of it and he has set a new standard for muscles on stage. But equally memorable is his performance as the all-American young man trying to fit in and make a living. His blank stares and quizzical looks make him Whale's ideal model of masculinity. This feels like a star performance for this actor having his professional debut and an inspired choice of casting.
There is some great dialogue in the script by writer director Russell Labey. This piece fires with witty camp observations but also has its sweeter moments, such as a scene where Whale describes in great detail Clayton's facial features as the ideal model. The climax in the second half is also so heartbreaking as Whale confronts his monsters, both real and imagined.
The piece is not without its faults. The first half feels too long and perhaps the second half is not long enough. Perhaps a little more theatrical magic and a narrowing of the focus to Whale, the gardener and his memories might help. But for a first outing it is still a powerful and thrilling piece.
Besides, even if the audience were getting a tad restless with the pacing at times, the full frontal male nudity throughout keeps things interesting. This is a piece with penises and bodies of all shapes and sizes. I also cannot remember the last time when the location of where you should sit has been such an important pre-show topic of discussion (if you are interested in knowing where you should sit, try the side behind the drinks table, in the first few rows). Male nudity at the theatre has never been more potent. Get in early as seating is unreserved.
Gods and Monsters is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 7 March.
First impressions post show with @Johnnfoxlondon
listen to ‘Franks and wieners boom: First impressions of Gods and Monsters @swkplay with @johnnyfoxlondon’ on audioBoom
Production photos by Annabel Vere.