Five days are shrunk into two hours in a historical biopic this week, through a theatrical recreation of one of the most famous episodes of film-making history. So intriguing was the occasion that in 2004 Ron Hutchinson (The Irish Play; Traffic) based Moonlight and Magnolias on the memoirs of Ben Hecht, the man largely responsible for one of the most notable films in Hollywood history. Gone With The Wind (1939) is as popular as much for its film cast as well as its perpetration of Civil War myth and racial stereotypes. While the film draws on representations of war and slavery, as well as a timeless love story from Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 sizeable novel, the play aims to render a reflection on attitudes to film-making in the golden age of Hollywood.
Director (and actor), Stevie Hughes (Habeas Corpus; Entertaining Mr Sloane), presents a time travel into American society, highlighting the criticisms and acclaims of Hollywood and Mitchell’s novel itself. Set in suitably intimate confines of the tucked away, members-only Bromley Little Theatre, which coincidentally celebrates its 75th birthday with the film’s this year, a formal warning is issued on entering the auditorium: ‘Peanuts will be thrown during the performance.’
The whole thing feels like a kind of 4D television experience; the curtains lift to display a convincing office, set in box like proportions, while wafts of cigar smoke emit beyond the stage. BLT regular, Andrew Newbon, plays a likeable but troubled David O. Selznick, the producer and primary exponent for the success behind the famous film. Selznick puffs a cigar between determined fingers, while tackling multiple retro telephones and shouting periodically for various memos (for which Selznick was notorious) to be noted by his secretary, Miss Poppenguhl (Charis Anna Beyer). He is rapidly joined by Hecht (Glenn Aylott) and Victor Fleming (Martin Phillips), the big fish director who helped to bring Selznick’s vision to life in 1939, and the expedition begins.
The eccentricity of the situation is effectuated by Selznick’s forceful approach to production at the time, at his insistence that both Hecht and Fleming remain with him until the screenplay is complete. Hecht and Fleming are doubtful, craving bagels more than inspiration, while Selznick is purely hungry for success. Promising the director and screenwriter only ‘brain food’ (enter flying peanuts and a rather copious amount of bananas) while they work for five days straight in the limits of his office, Selznick drives a vehicle of moral questioning among film-making, alluding to social thought at the time. An undermining criticism of Mitchell’s characters are addressed, and issues of race and social statue become more than just a preoccupation of the novel but of the lives of the film-makers.
Selznick, Hecht and Fleming are retold convincingly, throwing in historical and social context to form formidable characters. Newbon is well suited, though rather youthful, to playing Selznick, and his appearance only goads the portrayal of the ambitious producer. He tackles Selznick with commitment, easing into multiple, humerous enactments of Mitchell’s characters and presents a highly dramatised version of the imaginably showy Selznick. Aylott’s take on Hecht is a complimentary contrast to the dominating Selznick. In his crude attitudes to the script, as well as his own absorption of racial persecutions, Aylott secures Hecht’s place in the office as a note-worthy one. Phillips’ depiction of Fleming is as robust as the director himself was known to be. Adding a peppery spoonful to the mix, Phillips’ demeanour brings a punch of comedy to an otherwise supporting role. Lastly, Beyer introduces a sweetener in the character, Miss Poppenguhl, who appears every so often to be dictated to by Selznick. She claims the only female role, though a diminutive one; an accolade in a bowl full of male bravado.
Hughes’ direction provides traditional comedy. You’ll either laugh or you won’t but it resonates with intensity and is generally an extremely enjoyable two hours. With a well chosen cast, who adopt both amusing and dramatic stances to their roles, a sensation of classic entertainment is executed by the set, scenes and a message: bananas and peanuts are the makings of genius.
For more information about becoming a member at Bromley Little Theatre in order to see the play and others, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website to download an application form.