Russell Labey’s biographical fantasy is an adaptation of Christopher Bram’s book Father of Frankenstein, the same source material as the 1998 film. So with the movie picking up an Oscar nomination for Ian McKellen and Bill Condon taking home the statuette for best adapted screenplay, it was a tough act to follow and intriguing to see where Labey would take it.
At his home in the Hollywood Hills, James Whale, ageing director of horror classics The Old Dark House, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein is forced to look back on his life when he is visited by an over enthusiastic young journalist who is only interested in talking about the monster films and not Whale’s other achievements — for example his work with a young Laurence Olivier on Journey’s End.
While in many respects Whale is still as sharp as a new pin, a recent stroke means he is dependent on medication and the constant care of his housekeeper.
Ian Gelder stars here as Whale and it’s a generally sympathetic performance that paints the man as a rather sad figure struggling with the painful memories of his time serving in the army during the First World War and his early homosexual encounters back home in England.
Despite the advancing years and infirmity, Whale’s ardour isn’t dampened at all, however, and after a rather clumsy attempt to seduce the young journalist, his attention turns to the adonis Clayton Boone (Will Austin), a man employed to work on his garden. Whale becomes infatuated with Boone and invites him into the house to pose for a painting. And it all goes a bit downhill from there for the ageing director.
This a slight story and despite brief moments of inventive staging by Labey using a flashback device to recall events in Whale’s youth, too much of the first act is taken up with lengthy exposition and Whale explaining his back story rather than employing any real dramatic device. This makes it all a bit uneven with only flashes of wit provided through dialogue between Whale and his housekeeper (Lachele Carl) and the journalist (Joey Phillips).
The second act by comparison is compellingly dark and Labey the director and Labey the writer go to town here using some effective staging and some nice exchanges to tell the story — although there are still a couple of revelations that seem inserted for the sake of it rather than to advance the story in any way — but the second act is very short and it’s testament to the overall very good performances throughout that we still care what happens to these people by the time the play ends.
Reviewed by Tony Peters
Gods and Monsters is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 7 March 2015.