Rock

Tim Fountain
Oval House Theatre
(2008)

Publicity image

Meet Roy Harold Fitzgerald (née Scherer), part-time waiter seen by a talent scout at an L.A. pool-party, and see a gawky shrill-voiced hick from Winnetka, Illinois, who is working in a studio mail-room, turned into an all-American movie heartthrob. That's what agent Henry Willson does, and not just for the shy World War Two aircraft mechanic and truck driver who became Rock Hudson but for Tab Hunter, Rory Calhoun and Troy Donahue.

The irreplaceable Bette Bourne, always at his best I think in trousers, is inspired casting for Willson. With a gay undercurrent that doesn't have to be mentioned he projects both the Hollywood cynicism and the inner loneliness of this once powerful man whom blackmail drives to alcoholism and despair.

In a scene that wonderfully abbreviates his training methods, overloud vocalisations and neat spirits bring down Roy's voice an octave and imaginative drilling turns an awkward shamble into a manly stride and build a confident manner and handshake. A new look with a plaid shirt and Levis and soon the phone is buzzing with people wanting to know who the new boy is. What gets middle-aged queens excited soon gets middle-aged ladies excited, says Willson.

Michael Xavier's Roy perhaps overplays his awkwardness but it makes for an almost unbelievable transformation and shows the man as well as the creation changing as his career progresses, while Willson battles with the scandal sheets to protect his client. It is not just the press that is dangerous: this is the McCarthy era and the FBI is on the phone. Rock marries office secretary Phyllis, though he doesn't give up men and after three years they divorce.

If you invent a new you, you are supposed to live it, but can this co-exist with honesty and loyalty? This is a play that poses some serious questions and becomes very moving but does it with plenty of laughter. Tamara Harvey directs it with a light touch, using each scene break as punctuation to the action, not an interruption. Willson sees his creation as a character from an Edward Hopper painting and designer Morgan Large, assisted by David Howe's lighting, lifts his naturalistic office set with a widow view of Sunset Strip that is a dazzling modernist treatment. All swirling streaks of colour to suggest traffic and car lights: a metaphor for the glamour and the tawdriness of Hollywood against which this story is played.

The play was commissioned by Homotopia and Glasgay! and it is not without a gay sensibility but Fountain has written a play that has a resonance much wider than the problems of being in the closet and the fear of exposure.

At Oval House until 21st June 2008

Reviewer: Howard Loxton