Excitingly, the Royal Court has a real hit on its hands. The Kid Stays In The Picture, a co-production with the remarkable Complicite, is an absolute theatrical firecracker. It’s a multi-media experience, but it depends for the most part on the brilliance and beauty of the human voice. It’s hard to think of a better play for immersing the audience in the experience of cinema in all its ephemeral, gossipy and unpredictable glory. It’s an unqualified triumph.
Robert Evans was a giant in the American film industry. His eclectic output includes such phenomenal hits as Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Love Story, Marathon Man and Chinatown; his biggest failure may have been The Cotton Club. He married often, most notably, perhaps, to film star Ali MacGraw and Dynasty‘s Catherine Oxenburg. His life was steeped in the detritus of film production: rights negotiations, contract deals, talent wooing, finance arrangements. He had a good instinct for cinema and a taste for cocaine.
For people of a certain age, Evans is a touchstone for some of the biggest cinema hits of the 1960s and 1970s. The stars with whom Evans worked, as well as the writers and directors, were amongst the biggest names in their fields at the time. You may never have heard of Evans, but if you lived through those decades you could not miss the films with which he is associated.
The Kid Stays In The Picture presents aspects of Evans’ life, almost as a series of rushes or offcuts. Creators Simon McBurney and James Yeatman have not set out to tell the story of Evans’ life, at least not in a strictly autobiographical sense. Instead, they present impressions of versions of his life, untrammelled by the need for factual accuracy or forensic detail, in a completely imaginative and fascinating way.
You don’t exactly feel like you are watching a film about Evans’ life, but you do feel you are experiencing chapters of his life, not always from his point of view, or even from one time in his life, but always through the ephemeral cinematic flavour of his existence, his work and his relationships.
Snatches of film, photographs, copies of headlines, headshots, film posters together with morsels of remembered dialogue, or reported events or recreations of actual situations – these are the shapes sewn together in a filmic tapestry which plays out intriguingly, effortlessly creating a picture of the highs and lows of Evans’ life.
The result is quite intoxicating, undeniably entertaining. McBurney loves playing with form and The Kid Stays In The Picture represents a new form of theatre. What makes it work in theatrical terms is the raw skill of the actors. Like snakes, they shed skins and change character; their voice work is exceptional, with some sections seeing several people playing the same character at one time, a kind of specific Greek Chorus effect which works brilliantly. Mimicry is at a premium here, but so is the ability to capture character in a deliberate phrase or change in modulation.
Shadows and dim lighting, suggesting people are out of focus or not in the spotlight, work hand in hand with mercurial character changes to create a constantly shifting set of visual and aural experiences. Anna Fleischle’s nifty set (yes, there is the compulsory glass box but it really works here) provides plenty of opportunities for the image and visual rhapsody to shine. Keep an eye on the bar fridge! Films play, photos are projected, actors act – and it all works seamlessly.
There are a lot of microphones too. Some on stands, some not. They provide a texture – at times it seems like people are laying down a soundtrack for a motion picture. All roads, one way or another, here lead to an expression of an aspect of the cinematic experience, pre-production, production, post-production and release.
There is little point in discussing the plot. The magic of the experience comes in hearing the story unfold as it is told because of the way it is told. One wonders, though, whether people who do not know the films with which Evans is associated (even if they don’t know anything about Evans) would find as much joy in the production as those who do? And this is not a play for those seeking answers or a complete narrative about the intricacies of Evans’ life.
Impression, style and sensibility – these are the key factors in play in The Kid Stays In The Picture. And there is a surfeit of each. It is also often laugh out loud funny. At other points, the mood is sombre or unforgiving.
The cast are impossibly talented. No one is anything less than superb, but, even so, there are particularly dynamic and enthralling turns from Christian Carmargo, Danny Hutson, Heather Burns and Madeleine Potter, any one of which would make seeing this production a must.
As it is, the fusion of acting talent with breath-taking visionary theatricality makes The Kid Stays In The Picture a palpable hit for the Royal Court and Complicite.
It seems unimaginable that this production will not have a significant life after this season, but don’t take the chance. Find a way, any way, to see this extraordinary achievement.