Royal Court, London – until 8 April 2017
By guest critic Willa O’Brian
The American dream is a tantalising thing. Even the grubbiest kid from New York, the son of a nobody dentist, can become a film star and producer. This is Robert Evans’ story, the man responsible for pictures like ‘The Godfather’. Complicité’s Simon McBurney adapted the show from Evans’ autobiography, which paints a picture from a better time: when movies were pictures and hard boiled men tacked “see?” on the ends of sentences wreathed in cigarette smoke. It is visually sumptuous and the cast of eight are a constantly churning ensemble that whip the story into a froth and delivery a sensory overload of American tropes and history and multi-media tricks. Given the subject matter, the desire to incorporate all of these elements makes sense.
Unfortunately, the myriad of tricks up McBurney’s sleeve feel Pollock-splattered here. I don’t know if it’s the preponderance of podcasts and their popularity, but instantly upon hearing disembodied mic-ed voices we have been trained to use our imaginations to populate the world. But McBurney’s production and use of technology could not be accused of being measured or judicious. So as an audience member, it’s overwhelming. While the actors speak into microphones they are starkly lit from overhead. You can’t make out who is speaking from the gloom amidst the multitudinous application of projections. A technical feat, no doubt, and on the whole, the light design is extraordinary. There is a tremendous use of silhouettes for memory sequences and narration from Evans in the future – played by a marvellously washed up Danny Huston – old, spent and hunched in front of a microphone, relaying anecdotes and wry humor to the technicolor recollections of his youth.
The cast pull off cameos of what feels like a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Marilyn, Sinatra and Kissinger all make appearances, and we witness Evans narrowly miss out from numbering one of the Manson Murder body count. The history is fascinating, the story nigh unbelievable in its good fortune and twists of fate and is absolutely not to be missed for people that love the period.
The costumes are a delight – fedoras and suspenders and women poured into dresses so tight they spill a drop. The detail and quick changes are mesmeric and give a physical texture to the story that otherwise, in terms of set, is minimal: a projection screen, a desk, some chairs and a nifty little multipurpose mini fridge.
Even more impressive are the actors, tasked with the Herculean panoply of characters to play, many of whom define the word ‘icon’. This is tricky business and sometimes The Kid Stays in the Picture feels like a documentary where recreations of events are filmed to bulk out in between interviews. Nevertheless, each actor brings little fragments of the million piece puzzle of individuals to life. Heather Burns in particular (Miss Rhode Island from ‘Miss Congeniality’ or if you have slightly more erudite tastes, Jill in ‘Manchester by the Sea’) delivered an elegant Orlando-worthy performance, metamorphosing from Robert as a young man into litany of bombshells and other supporting characters.
Somehow though, I left the theatre feeling that the show lacked heart. It is more style than substance, and due to the number of bases that are covered, the production loses sight of the story. Unfortunately, McBurney lost sight of the forest for the trees. The Kid Stays in the Picture is a feast of rich detail from the American landscape, but the man at the center of it all – Robert Evans – remains lost.