Moonlight and Magnolias

Ron Hutchinson
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn

Three production photographs

Ron Hutchinson has made his name with gritty dramas such as Rat in the Skull. It therefore comes as a complete surprise to see him entering Terry Johnson land with a light comedy based on real characters in an almost believable situation.

As the Second World War approaches Europe, legendary Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, played by Andy Nyman, sees the chance to record his name for posterity by converting a supremely popular bodice ripper called Gone with the Wind into a movie. All that he needs is the right script writer and director.

The problems come thick and fast. After a stream of unacceptable scripts written by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles MacArthur, Selznick believes that he has found the right man at long last in Duncan Bell's Ben Hecht, the man who, along with MacArthur, wrote The Front Page.

While he might have the talent and the energy required for five solid nights of writing, Hecht is practically the only adult in Hollywood who hasn't read the book. Worse, proud of his Jewish ancestry, he has a real attitude problem when faced with a book set in the Deep South during the American Civil War, where the Klan are far more popular than the Black folk who do all the work

The third member of the creative team is director Victor Fleming, dragged off the set of The Wizard of Oz in order to make a movie that he believes is bound to be a failure. Stephen Pacey, who fills this highly assured and somewhat manic but underwritten role, is at his best when re-enacting scenes from the novel.

That is where the charm of Moonlight and Magnolias lies. Early on, the convincingly hyperactive Andy Nyman, who makes a hilarious Scarlett O'Hara, does a wonderful job of compressing the novel into 10 minutes of sheer comic bliss and is then almost outdone by the much wryer Bell who manages the same feat in 30 seconds.

The remainder of the play sees Selznick and Fleming rehearsing the text at greater length in order to enable Hecht to turn it into a screenplay. If this sounds somewhat repetitive, it is, since this is very much a one joke play. However, that joke is sustained reasonably well as the five days of creation are compressed into 2¼ hours including the interval.

For those who have had a lifelong love affair with Gone with the Wind this affectionate homage should bring guffaws of laughter as the three men vie to send up the movie to the greatest possible effect, while Josephine Bell provides willing support as a tireless secretary who ensures that these caged monkeys continue to receive their peanuts and bananas.

Designer Francis O'Connor certainly has fun with vast quantities of these strewn around a posh, wood panelled, art deco office that may, one presumes, has deliberately been made shaky to add to the comedy.

Visitors to the Tricycle who have somehow avoided the charms of what many regard one of the best movies ever, will either discover a tempting introduction that will send them scurrying to the video shop or a long-term inoculation protecting them from what Hecht clearly regards as a clichéd melodrama with offensive undertones.

Moonlight and Magnolias may add little to the sum of human knowledge but the quality of the humour is such that there are a remarkable number of very good jokes and, thanks to director Sean Holmes, pretty much every one hits its target. There are also a couple of strong slapstick scenes in what turns into a pleasantly light-hearted evening.

Until 3rd November

Robert Tanitch reviewed the 2008 revival with a different cast

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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