The Whingers had only the vaguest memories of the story of William Haines (Phil was sure he’d read about him in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon but wasn’t certain), the Hollywood leading man turned interior designer-to-the-stars. But then most of the Whingers’ memories are vague these days.
Haines (Dylan Turner) came to fame in the twenties after winning a talent show (perhaps X Factor winners should consider enrolling in interior design courses to ensure they have a fall-back) and was what we used to call a homosexual, but one who wouldn’t stick to convention or studio rules and lived for 50 years with his ex-marine partner Jimmie (Bradley Clarkson) in an relationship so open that his second home was the docks and his film career (which included Tell It to the Marines, Navy Blues and The Marines Are Coming) ended when he was arrested for picking up a jolly jack tar. The Whingers are tempted to stop sniffing their Magic Marker pens for a moment and use them to alter the posters for The Tailor-Made Man, a musical about Haines’ nautically nuanced life, to the equally apt The Sailor-Mad Man.
Haines audaciously flaunted his sexuality in a way that was way ahead of many film stars of later years (think Rock Hudson, think
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Things got off to a dangerously creaky start: a teasing, tingling excitement in both Whingers’ waters that suggested this might be the new Too Close To the Sun but sadly it was not to be. There was a kind of “perfectly acceptable”, “heart’s in the right place”, “jovial enough”, “A for effort” feeling by the interval. Andrew bandied the word “eager” around.
Part love story, part exposure of the double standards of Hollywood, the book by Amy Rosenthal and Claudio Macor (the later also directs) shows flashes of wit and the songs’ lyrics (Adam Meggido) threaten the same but are sadly too often inaudible in the ensemble numbers. We’re not sure we’ve ever heard a song about interior design before and we didn’t hear most of one here.
The music (Duncan Walsh Atkins and Adam Meggido) has a jaunty pastiche-of-the-age feel but is largely unmemorable, though the title number’s melody has somehow wormed its way into Phil’s brain. There’s also plenty of jaunty Gatsby-ish party dancing with more flapping than a Tippi Hedren scene.
The cast are all pretty good, Clarkson and the surprisingly ripped Turner sing well and do their best to make us care about their relationship and Faye Tozer from “smash-hit band Steps” is a fun and giddily irrepressible Marion Davis. Mike McShane has the physical presence for Louis B Mayer the hypocritical studio head who took an unhealthy interest in stars’ menstrual cycles and ordered Haines to get hitched to fading silent screen star Pola Negri (Kay Murphy) or be blacklisted and never work in Tinseltown again.
Murphy gives it her all in a rather strange number (which should be, but isn’t, called You’ve Been Framed!) where the chorus dance around her with picture frames. Was this a nod to Negri’s film career? Interior design? The framing device of the show which is topped and tailed by an elderly Jimmie being interviewed about his life with Haines? Maybe they’re just dancing with picture frames? As you do.
It’s no La Cage aux Folles that’s for sure but like that show its heart is in the right place and conventionally traditional despite celebrating the unconventional.