It was noticeable that the audience for Gods and Monsters at Southwark Playhouse yesterday afternoon was predominantly male. In fact, I could count on both my hands the number of women present, which made for a blissfully non-existent queue for the ladies at the interval.
Gods and Monsters is about James Whale, the London theatre turned Hollywood film director who was most well known for directing Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein in the 1930s. He was, unusually for the time, openly gay. The play also carries warnings of nudity. I like to think it isn't the latter that is drawing in the crowds but this production has garnered a certain reputation since it opened (see photo).
The play sees Whale (Ian Gelder) in his later years, in his California home, recovering from the effects of a stroke. He is in pain and his memory and word recall can come and go but his medication make him sluggish so he tries not to take it. He is encouraged to paint again, something he did when he was younger but, with mischievous charm, uses it as an excuse to get young men to disrobe.
With flash backs to his youth and early relationships at University and then as an officer in the First World War, we get a picture of man who was rose from a humble background on the back of his artistic talent and cleverness. A man who loved men.
When Whale catches sight of his young, muscular, gardener Clayton Boone (Will Austin) a sort of friendship forms although Whale's motives are unclear. Is it just another attempt to get a young man to strip naked for his own titillation under the guise of practicing his art?
The monsters of the piece are many: Whale's sometimes irascible personality, the shallowness of Hollywood, transient youth and Whale's famous movie monster which looms over it all. The Gods are more subtle. There is something reminiscent of ancient Greece in the male forms on show and in their poses for paintings. There is also the question of playing 'God'.
There is some great use of projected images and sound which bring the setting alive and add to the atmosphere of the piece. However, I'm not sure the play quite fully nails down Whale and sometimes the flashbacks to his youth feel a little clunky.
You have to admire Whale and his blatant attempts to satisfy his voyeurism but I wonder how much this production will be remembered for the nudity and physical forms on display rather than the play. There was a moment when Boone first appears, all sweaty, wearing jeans and a tight white vest and the auditorium went silent except for everyone's thoughts.
I'm not going to lie and say it was awful seeing such fine physiques in the buff but perhaps it illustrates a slight weakness in the play in that it is a bit of a distraction.
Gods and Monsters is two hours and 15 minutes and you can catch it at the Southwark Playhouse until March 7.