The Tailor-Made Man is the powerful true story of Hollywood hunk William “Billy” Haines and the man he gave it all up for. Haines’ behaviour disgusted MGM so much that they locked his entire back catalogue in a vault and burned his production stills. Although the world has moved on since Haines’ heyday – and since the show’s premiere twenty-five years ago – closeted stars are reminded to this day of Haines’ fate – of what could happen to them.
Haines worked alongside many of the true Hollywood greats, but is barely remembered today. After being spotted by a scout in the early twenties, he solidified his stardom – and his onscreen persona as a wise-cracking, arrogant lead – in films such as Brown of Harvard. His career was cut short after a raid at a local YMCA found him in a compromising position with a sailor, however with his partner Jimmie Shields’ help Haines found a way to still enjoy the company of LA’s elite.
Joan Crawford described Haines and Shields as the “happiest married couple in Hollywood”, despite living decades before the adoption of same-sex marriage across America.
The Tailor-Made Man, also the title of a Haines’ film, tells Haines’ story in all its grit, gore and glamour. Playwright Claudio Macor has a score of Off West End and Off Broadway credits spanning three decades, and his writing is accessible, engaging and fast-moving.
The constraints of The White Bear do leave you with a little motion sickness in the first half, as all actors burst onto and across the stage in a flurry only Hollywood could require. The piece is structured well and tells a compelling story, however its form is a little linear and tiptoes the boundary between drama and biography.
The sole writerly technique that reminds an audience of the piece’s theatrical nature is interspliced monologues from Jimmie Shields, recounting his and Haines’ life to a silent film crew. These moments are moving – especially in the latter half – and reveal true insight into a turbulent, traumatic but terribly exciting life. Overall the piece could benefit from more of these moments and less Hollywood parties. Less hedonism, more heart.
Director Bryan Hodgson was trained at the Guilford School of Acting and Hull University, and has written and directed works across the UK, including Salad Days (Union Theatre and Theatre Royal Bath) and Wind in the Willows (Waterloo East Theatre). His direction is a Rubik’s cube rotation between the expanse of the script, its characters’ personalities and totality and the small square footage of the stage.
Hodgson’s direction is solid in an unsurprising way, bar some ill-thought out choices. Calls of ‘action’ and ‘cut’ bookend each and every scene, and whilst perhaps accurate, the scale of some performances seem histrionic rather than historic in such an intimate setting.
Mitchell Hunt (Mr Selfridge, Hollyoaks) is a compelling, aggravating and ultimately believable Billy Haines. Haines may be easy to dislike but Hunt isn’t. His skilful playfulness and cocky bravado slides swiftly into wounded pride, drunken stupor and sheer desperation.
As Hunt’s long-term partner, Jimmie Shields, Tom Berkeley provides some much-needed restraint and reality in the Hollywood world of lights, camera, over-acting. Berkeley is at his – and the production’s best – when delivering his simple, stark but ruefully short monologues.
Edwin Flay portrays full-time fixer Howard Strickling with an alarming amount of empathy and likeability: a 1920s Giles Coren, both infuriating and appealing. Dean Harris’ Louis B Mayer, however, with a hybrid voice of Marlon Brando’s The Godfather and the voice over from The X Factor, is utterly repellent.
Victor Darro, a young scriptwriter and later friend to the stars, is played with charming flightiness and slight feyness by Henry Felix. Yvonne Lawlor’s Miss Marion Davies is believably unbelievable (although shows no sign of the socialite’s struggle with a stutter). Rachel Knowles plays both the ill-fated Carole Lombard and the bizarre Pola Negri, whilst Peter Dewhurst is the non-tailor-made man, playing three roles perfunctorily but without chance to shine.
Mike Lee’s set is universal rather than paramount, forming a number of spaces and places, including a beach, MGM offices and LA’s most disreputable pick-up spot. The set allows us to travel through time as well as space, with its painted backdrop reminding us at all points that we’re just watching clips of a life, moments from recorded memory. Costumes are equally well-put-together, feeling period perfect, right down to the bleach blonde low-rate wigs.
The production’s sound design is simple, whereas a more complex lighting design adds nuance, light and shade, and real feeling to the humble black box.
The Tailor-Made Man tells the story of a man gone and almost forgotten. The obstreperous obtrusion – a nigh-on revolution – by and of a once silent movie star. William Haynes deserves remembering, but ultimately deserves a better written show – or biography – to do so.