So yesterday I set off for Hollywood, California via Edinburgh, Scotland and Adelaide, Australia. No, I haven’t finally lost it, this was my online trip in both time and place courtesy of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I noticed when I was going through their programme and planning what I intended to cover that there were a number of shows that centred on the lives of some of the stars of the screen (Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis) and others which took a look at the reality behind the myth – such as the two I gravitated towards.
I was enticed in this direction by the fact that one of these shows was premiering as a live event before becoming an on demand video. This was especially exciting as this livestream was coming all the way from Adelaide in Southern Australia – definitely the farthest flung location I had watched material from in my now 500 consecutive days of online reviewing. The chance to mark this with a live Fringe show (even if it was 10,000+ miles from Scotland) wasn’t one to be resisted. Although I did resist the temptation to watch the very first livestream at 4.00am and settled for the 11.00am version instead.
Joanne Hartstone’s The Girl Who Jumped Off The Hollywood Sign is the tale of one woman’s bid to be an actor when all the odds are seemingly stacked against her and a damning critique of the system which set and manipulated those odds.
Evie (Evelyn) Edwards wants badly to be in pictures and when she and her daddy, to whom she is devoted, move to LA she sees her chance. She gets a job running messages at MGM and volunteers for Bette Davis’ Hollywood Canteen during the war years, all the time hoping to get a big break. But Tinseltown has a habit of chewing people up and spitting them out and even though she has the proof of this in the stories of Theda Bara, Jean Harlow and Judy Garland she just keeps on trying and is ready to do almost anything.
After a particular sordid encounter, Evie makes a big decision and looks set to follow the example of the real life Peg Entwhistle or the fictional figure in Dory Previn’s song Mary C. Brown And The Hollywood Sign.
The simple setting, a facsimile of the top of the massive letter “H”, looked as if it was going to be rather limiting but Hartstone periodically steps onto the main stage to play out scenes from Evie’s life and to make a more direct connection with her live audience. Naturally she plays any other characters as she tells her story, proving that her character and indeed the actor herself are accomplished.
She has written her own engrossing script, is completely in command of the material and gives a lovely, measured performance which has us rooting for Evie even as we know that it is all going to end in disaster. The show is bolstered by some good renditions of songs of the era and there are even some moments of comedy but in the end this is a tragic tale and one that is based in reality. In the 1930s, actor Peg Entwhistle’s dead body was found below the gigantic letter “H” of the sign and her story was splashed across the media – finally she had hit the big time. To see whether Evie follows suit you should watch the on demand video capture of the live performance from 15 August.
There is a much broader focus in My House – although perhaps there shouldn’t have been. While the initial premise is interesting enough it meanders all over the place and eventually gets bogged down in its own conceit. Basically, this is a time travelling version of Through The Keyhole as we get to see a palatial Hollywood mansion and the various people who have inhabited it since 1926 when it was built for Charlie Chaplin and his second wife Lita who was only 15 when they married. It was also home to Carole Lombard and William Powell, and later to TV actress Patricia Barry. All of the above appear in swiftly alternating and revolving scenes focusing on Chaplin’s philandering, Powell’s cancer and Barry’s … well, actually I’m not sure. It was filmed in various rooms of the house in black and white, sepia and full colour which is a nice touch. This all depends on the particular time frame for the many scenes which can be anytime from the mid-1920s up to the present day when the house is purportedly inhabited by the play’s writer Charlotte Lubert – while the rest is all verifiable I’m not sure if this last is fact or invention. Either way we get to see some of the reality (impending death, messy divorce, etc.) which is couched in increasingly stilted dialogue and some rather stiff accents. Eventually the spirits of the past (or in some cases future) inhabitants all congregate in the kitchen and talk about themselves in a lengthy coda which really doesn’t add much to a schmaltzy “what have we learned from all this” moment other than for them all to agree what a nice place it has been to live in.
Perhaps the most intriguing element is the 1960s inhabitants. She is an actor who has appeared in an Elvis movie, and he is clearly a writer. As she calls him Leslie at one point and there was a reference to Dr Dolittle I deduced this must be Leslie Bricusse who, in this incarnation looks for all the world like Austin Powers minus the protruding teeth. Their segment goes nowhere, literally, as neither character is included in the final kitchen meet up thus rendering this aspect redundant. I think the couple had only been renting the house which perhaps means they didn’t count …. so why include this storyline at all? I have one more issue to raise. The production company is called Without Exception Live and, indeed, a caption at the start claims this play was performed in front of a live audience in June 2021. Given the structure of the piece as it moves around the house and grounds this seems highly unlikely. And there is also absolutely no audience reaction to be discerned. Or perhaps they were just like me, wondering what they were doing attending a rather wasted opportunity.