My knowledge of iconic horror movies is pretty much non-existent. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never seen Frankenstein (1935), or Bride of Frankenstein, or The Invisible Man (shocking – ed).
But, as Joey Phillips’ gloriously camp young journalist in Gods and Monsters at the Southwark Playhouse said at Tuesday’s opening night, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster (NOT Frankenstein, to be clear!) has become an image as iconic and as recognisable as the Mona Lisa.
Even if you haven’t seen the films, you recognise them as some of Hollywood’s greatest creations.
English-born director James Whale (“like the aquatic mammal, not the lamentation”) rose to fame through his 1930s horror films.
When we meet him in Gods and Monsters it’s the late 1950s and he’s a has-been.
The director has been retired for a decade and is recovering from a stroke in the company of his judgemental, but ultimately kind-hearted maid, (Lachele Carl – distractingly dodgy accent, but excellent comic timing).
Openly gay throughout his career, Whale (Game Of Thrones Ian Gelder) lived by the 1930s Hollywood rule that “no one gave a tinker’s cuss who you slept with, as long as you kept it out of the papers”.
He’s no longer a Hollywood playboy, but his age and ill health haven’t calmed his appetite for boys of a certain age.
If anything, the stroke and the fact he’s probably got nothing left to lose, have caused him to shed his inhibitions even further.
But, after shamelessly encouraging his eager student journalist visitor to strip, in exchange for tales of the past, Whale is soon overcome by crippling headaches.
When the doctor confirms that he’s unable to find a cure, you see the tragic ending of this story written across Whale’s face. He’s in agony, confusing his words, and losing his mind.
Always keen to distance himself from his Frankenstein legacy, Whale’s now got a bigger monster to deal with.
Buff and sweaty gardener Clayton Boone (Will Austin making his stage debut although impressive screen rep with Mission Impossible 5, 24: Die Another Day, and Danny Boyle’s Babylon) provides a welcome distraction.
Whale persuades him to pop in for lunch and pose for a portrait (as you do). He claims to only be interested in the shape of Boone’s head, but Boone’s the only one falling for that one.
It would have been easy to turn Boone into a typical redneck cliché but Austin, and writer/ director Russell Labey, get it spot on.
His initial reaction to Whales’ homosexuality is hostile, but he adapts quicker to the revelation than you’d expect from a super-manly ex-Marine in the 1950s. Any other reaction would have ended the play rather sooner, I suppose.
Boone claims to have had no prior experience around homosexuals and is clearly surprised – but open to be educated – about the fact Whale could be both gay and a military man who served in WW1.
Their relationship retains its respect and quickly develops beautifully into a comfortable, father-and-son-like dynamic.
Austin’s astonishingly rock-hard torso featured heavily in the preview images for Gods and Monsters and both Will Rastall and Phillips strip off and roll around a bit in their roles as a young Whale and his lover.
You could argue that the nudity isn’t quite essential and it even got seasoned writers giggling a bit at press night.
But it at least gets you acclimatised for Austin’s full-frontal in a later scene that’s quite violently hands-on. For a split second at least, I literally mean hands-on.
Those parts (sorry!) proved a talking point mid and post show but, in my view, don’t distract from the fact that the rest of the play – which made its world premiere this week – is just really very good.
Whale, in his words, is sliding into a world where he can’t distinguish between the past, the present and fantasy, but the superb Gelder never falls into ‘full King Lear’ territory.
Whales’ wit, sense of humour and flirtatiousness remain and ensure Gods and Monsters is uproariously funny throughout.
Phillips, who has one of the most infectiously gorgeous smiles I’ve seen on the stage, flicks from irritating groupie and student journalist to the part of a young Whale’s lover with such ease that it genuinely took me well over half an hour to realise it was the same actor.
Gods and Monsters, produced by lady of the moment Danielle Tarento, is based on the original novel Father Of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, which also provided the source material for the Oscar-winning 1998 film Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellan.
Even if you’re not an avid fan of James Whale’s movies, be it Frankenstein or the one he preferred to be remembered for – Show Boat – Gods and Monsters is a beautiful portrait of what happens once fame fades.
Gods and Monsters runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 7 March.