There’s a variety of warnings to heed before going into see Russell Labey’s Gods and Monsters at the Southwark Playhouse – a first half that is 85 minutes long, there’s strobe lighting and there’s male nudity. And with the last point in mind, forgive a puerile game of wordplay throughout the length of this review – ding dong, we’ve started. The story focuses on the final days of James Whale, director of films like Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (but not Frankenweenie) as he variously battles illness and the distracting presence of his hunky new gardener –will he survive, make a cock-up of the situation or perhaps even both?
Sequestered in the Hollywood Hills, Whale lives with his long-suffering maid Maria where he entertains a steady flow of adoring Tom, Dick and Harrys (or should that be John Thomas and Johnsons) – often young, often gay – in search of gossipy interviews about old Hollywood. But the misbehaving organ that is his disintegrating mind is letting those memories – shown here in elegant flashbacks – peter away and Whale is determined that he will get the last word. It is a quietly paced play in which the whole package doesn’t always quite fit together perfectly but there can be no doubting the absolutely tremendous performance from Ian Gelder as Whale – rarely off-stage and undeniably on the top of his game.
It’s a tricky line to tread between repressed artistic soul and dirty old man pulling his todger but Gelder nails it, recalling a manhood of yesteryear – shaped by wartime experience, homosexuality’s illegality, a different code from a different time – and breathing a lyrical lived-in grace to the script as he banters with his houseguests or recalls love affairs of his past. He’s shaken from this rhythm by the raw masculinity of Will Austin’s ram-rod straight Boone, first seen hosed with sweat from using his tool in the garden (reports it was a chopper remains unconfirmed) and relentlessly subjected to Whale’s lascivious gaze and ultimately his devious plotting.
As such, it’s not the strongest role for Austin to wield his sword against, lumbered with awkward lines about the discomfort of being the subject of the male gaze whilst having essentially been employed for the very same reason. Joey Phillips fares better as a flirtatious fan and a younger Whale and Lachele Carl is drily effective as Maria. Given how much time is spent whipping clothes off, there’s something mildly ironic about there being a named costume designer in Jason Denvir and that sparseness also extends to his set design with empty frames standing in for doors with nary a knob or a knocker to be seen, in turn allowing shafts of Mike Robertson’s lighting to illuminate the action beautifully, whether watching the leg of a trouser snake onto the floor during a lewder moment or a plate of uneaten sausage sandwiches (or were they cucumber?)
John Chamber’s sound design is subtly done, no Wang Chung tracks here, but the projection work from Louise Rhoades-Brown sits awkwardly though – rarely integrated into the production well and certainly over-used in a final scene that ends up feeling way too much like a Bel Ami trailer and makes the mistake of first denying Gelder’s voice for a voiceover and then pulling him off-stage altogether – especially given how moving the scene before is, watching him use the pen is heartbreaking. But for the vast majority of the evening when Gelder is front and centre, it is a mesmerising watch – recommended without a prick of conscience.