REVIEW: ‘The Tailor-Made Man’ at Stage Door Theatre, London

Brian Butler May 21, 2024

In order to keep gay actors in the closet and their sex life out of the headlines, for decades Hollywood studio bosses said the same thing: ‚Äúremember what happened to William Haines‚ÄĚ.

And what did happen is the subject of Claudio Macor’s passionate and searingly honest play The Tailor-Made Man Рthe first play to be staged at the new Stage Door Theatre in London’s Drury Lane.

Director Robert McWhir has chosen a traverse staging, with the audience at tables and chairs on either side and very, very close to the action.

Billy Haines was a screen idol in the silent era and the advent of the talkies, raking in millions for MGM studio boss Louis B Mayer. But he had a secret life – well not so secret to those in the know. In the guesthouse next to his luxurious LA house was his lifelong partner Jimmie Shields.

Ironically, for a time, Jimmie became Billy’s stand-in on the film set. PR boss Howard Strickling knew it all and covered it up. But when Billy got caught in bed with a sailor at the YMCA, his world came tumbling down.

The studio bosses had even devised a plan for a sham marriage between Billy and failing ex-silent star actress Pola Negri.

Hugo Pilcher, on his West End debut, is a chunky beef cake of a man, initially shy but soon arrogant, reckless and out of control – seemingly bringing about his own downfall.

Gwithian Evans is the long-suffering Jimmie, exuding frustration, but deeply in love with the damaged star. The chemistry between the two actors is palpable and is the at the core of the play’s storyline. Being so close to the audience, there’s no room for faking, and their performances are genuine, honest and believable.

Peter Rae doubles as the oily, ever loyal Strickling, and the camp English screenwriter Victor Darro, who forges a bond with the two male lovers.

Dereck Walker blasts his way through the story as Louis B Mayer – loud, perfunctory, intolerant yet protective of his stars as long as they are big box office.

Olivia Ruggiero gives us contrasting roles as the cartoonish Negri – whose thick accent killed her career when the talkies arrived, and the champagne swilling beauty Carole Lombard.

And Shelley Rivers is pitch perfect as the not very convincing  actress Marion Davies who is in movies because her lover, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, is bankrolling the pictures.

Traverse staging presents its own problems and Richard Lambert’s lighting overcomes all of them, aided by David Shields’ sparse setting, moving us effortlessly from movie set to bedroom and office. Aaron’s Clingham’s music has a true Hollywood feel to it and helps the cinematic effect, augmented by scene titles being projected on a screen.

And spoiler alert Рthere’s a happy ending of sorts, which is also full of irony.

A great five-star debut for this new venue, where you can also have dinner in situ.

You can catch the play on various dates in June and July. Tickets HERE

Picture by Peter Davies