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A wizened figure dressed like a Roman Centurion collapses into an overly plush armchair; he’s meant to be on set right now, but he’s ‘the’ George Sanders — they can wait for him. The question is… what’s he waiting for? And, more pertinently, what is the audience waiting for?
Adapted from Sanders’ own Memoirs of a Cad by David Harrold, Villain in Tinseltown is a wry look at Hollywood’s first bad-boy movie star. Type-cast as a wicked scoundrel, Sanders played countless cinematic charlatans in his 40-year career, but this new monologue seeks to cast him as a tragic figure; one whose fame masks his true self.
Evoking echos of Present Laughter’s Garry Essendine, Sanders struts around his gauchely-decorated trailer, spitting out stories (“when I first met Zsa Zsa Gabour…”) and weaving wisecracks, all the while suggesting he’s not so bad as he seems (“on screen I am invariably a son-of-a-bitch, in life I am a dear, dear boy”). There’s been a wide trend recently of properties seeking to offer a knowing look at the ‘truth’ of Hollywood’s Golden Age (Mank, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Netflix’s Hollywood): they can be anything from deeply shocking to idealistically affirming. The issue is, this show doesn’t really know where to position itself within that spectrum.
Take Sanders’ infamous misogyny, for example. At one point, the actor acknowledges his public persona of being a woman-hating rogue (“what do I think of intellectual women? I’ll let you know when I meet one”), neither admonishing or celebrating it. As a viewer, it’s difficult to tell if we’re meant to be chastising this display of old school misogyny, or enjoying it as a bit of taboo nostalgia. Perhaps it’s even an analog for the continued issue of sexual assault? Who knows: whatever it is, it’s too mired in confusion and indecision to be realised.
Indeed, this confused approach is apparent throughout the piece; there’s no real ‘point’ to Villain in Tinseltown. Although Harrold’s script is a veritable smorgasbord of wisecracks (“as a stage actor, you get used to the quiet…”), there’s no connective tissue tying these zingers together. Utterly anchorless, Sanders flitters from superfluous anecdote to superfluous anecdote, dragging the audience along with no real destination in mind. In isolation, each small story works, but after over an hour of this ostentatious oscillation, the pacing is simply a mess.
There’s also the rich irony of, despite watching a 75-minute show about his life, I feel I still know nothing about George Sanders: not biographically, nor personally, or even emblematically. Director Helen Niland has created the perfect space to discover the truth behind the figure, but never settles on what that revelation is… The character is certainly witty, but not much beyond that.
Which is a shame, because the creative team’s love is just so evident. The Art Deco-inspired set that invigorates the White Bear’s otherwise low-key performance area; the swanky turn-of-phrase that balances dry wit with verbose lyricism; Jonathan Hansler’ committed realisation of the dour Sanders… it’s all brilliant. But without an overriding motivation to coalesce around, the show simply languishes.
As audiences are finally given the chance to return to venues, theatre-makers have the opportunity to interrogate the purpose of performances: what’s the message? Who’s this for? Why is this being put on? Unfortunately, Villain in Tinseltown only leaves the audience with even more questions… Namely, who is George Sanders and why should we care?
Villain in Tinseltown is playing at the White Bear Theatre until 29 May 2021. For more information and tickets visit White Bear Theatre online.