Well, The Kid Stays in the Picture really is one exhilarating, wild nostalgia ride through Hollywood’s heydays! Based on the life of Robert Evans, a film producer behind some of the biggest films of the 1970s, we hurtle through scenes upon scenes with some of the biggest names that ever graced the silver screen.
Iconic names drip from tongues – Brando, Pacino, Ali McGraw, Steve McQueen, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Cagney, Moira Shearer – and snippets from the most legendary of films are beamed onto screens around the stage: The Godfather, Marathon Man, Love Story, Rosemary’s Baby…
The feeling is one of a glorious, enraptured adrenalin rush. We race through Hollywood mansions and Oscars ceremonies at breakneck speed. Ball-breaking boardroom negotiations mix with illicit drug deals and multi-million dollar budgets. This is as much a drug-fuelled rush for us in the audience as it is for the characters.
It is a gloriously chaotic mix of tribute and pastiche, of drama and comedy.
And Director Simon McBurney, the founder and Artistic Director of Complicité who co-produce this production, has wrapped up this story in a stunning (and high-risk) production design.
The stage is a stripped back movie set, or perhaps a voiceover booth? There’s nothing but microphones, a handful of props, a giant movie projector screen, and a couple of live cameras. The eight actors (all of whom are terrific btw) play the myriad of characters whilst movie-style backdrops mix with actual movie scenes on the giant screens behind them. And all the while, silhouetted behind a screen, an old Robert Evans narrates the story of his life as it is played out in front of us.
The impressive set-up has its challenges – there was a brief, obvious technical fault with one of the cameras the night I went, and the screen glass used meant that all in the stalls could see the reflection of the script being relayed to the cast via the teleprompter. But this aside, the arrangement affords such flexibility and you can’t help but admire the dexterity in the cast as they fly through their scenes, switching characters (and accents, and genders) at the toss of a coin.
Of course, such wild rides have the tendency to burn themselves out, and you get that feeling after the interval. Partly deliberate – the freneticism and ecstasy of the first half could never be sustained – but the play doesn’t help itself by bogging itself down with a few too many subplots. A spurious drug bust and a failed real estate deal sap the energy, but they do also somewhat show up a bit of a problem: the emotional heart of the story is not what makes this play engaging.
Do we find out who Robert Evans was? Sort of. Brought up in Harlem by an honourable father during the Great Depression and the War. A young man who, through a combination of luck and sheer force of will, turned around a reputation as failed actor to become a movie mogul. But do we care? Um, no.
Robert Evans, the man, is largely lost in the blizzard of movies and mayhem around him, which is the central draw to this production. It is his life we follow but this motion picture-esque production of his experiences hasn’t captured his soul. Maybe he never had much depth anyway. After all, it doesn’t seem like he ever left the office. And though he may have had Coppola and Puzo in his office, and Richard Gere and Roman Polanski on set, it is them we are interested in, not him.
The Kid Stays in the Picture takes Evans’s life and uses it as the thread on which to hang all these energetic and exciting scenes where the great and the good are conjured up by the fantastic cast. And you know what? I’ve come away thinking that is pretty much OK with me. There is so much to enjoy in this entertaining show that, on this occasion, you can forgive this. The Kid Stays in the Picture is fun, frenetic, and impossible not to enjoy.
Royal Court Theatre, London, to April 8, 2017
Tickets from £12
All production images by Johan Persson.