What struck me the first time I saw Moss Hart and George S Kaufman’s Hollywood satire has struck me again – not that the greed and Vatican-scale opulence of 1920s Hollywood still applies today, but that it took so little time for the corrupting character of the place to evolve.
“I only ever wanted to run this studio like an ordinary business,” declares the play’s fictional movie mogul Herman Glogauer. Yet somehow along the way this man of modest ambition became the kind of tycoon whose idea of a thank-you present is a solid gold dinner set.
In director Richard Jones’ utterly ravishing revival, veteran British TV comedian Harry Enfield makes his theatre debut in that role. It’s not much of an acting leap. Glogauer – the man who turned down the first talkie – is your archetypal first-generation, Mittel-European movie mogul. Enfield goes for an altogether more cuddly interpretation than, say, David Suchet’s aggressive cigar-chomper in the National Theatre’s 2005 revival. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The play’s heroes are not moguls but funny girl May and straight man George (Claudie Blakley and John Marquez), a struggling vaudeville comedy duo whose manager, Jerry (Kevin Bishop), reckons could make a killing in Hollywood. It is May, however, who hits on a way to exploit the talkie revolution: elocution lessons for actors whose voices are perfect for the silent era.
When the action switches to Glogauer’s art deco studios, Jones’ production moves into a different league of stylishness, not just compared to the earlier scenes, but probably to any other production currently on the London stage. Hyemi Shin’s design acknowledges the film industry with a stage that matches the shape and proportions of a cinema screen. There’s a central revolve off which several swinging doors help to generate a sense of farce. But it’s most useful function is as a catwalk for Nicky Gillibrand’s to-die-for costumes that colourise 1920s chic. Meanwhile, the plot loiters around the absurdities of life in a film studio.
Enfield’s Glogauer shuffles around more like a retiree than the more usual tyrannical tycoon. Much more recognisable is Bishop’s fast-talking fixer Jerry, a character oddly sidelined as endearingly stupid George becomes more central. With a vacant look that suggests there exists tumbleweed where there should be brain, Marquez makes the perfectly pitched comedy foil to Blakeley’s savvy May. Around this duet of smarts and stupidity there are some lovely cameos. Amanda Lawrence as amnesiac secretary Miss Leighton probably turns in the comedy performance of the year. Also worth a mention is Daniel Abelson as an underemployed screenwriter sent insane by the studio’s neglect and over the edge by Leighton’s forgetfulness.
But the key to the evening is that comedy is never allowed to overshadow satire. Already Hollywood was a place of paradox in which the human spirit burns bright before being snuffed out.