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Trumbo

Christopher Trumbo
Jermyn Street Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten. Screenwriter of famous movies such as Spartacus, Roman Holiday, Exodus, Papillon and Lonely Are the Brave, he stood up to Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress when, in 1947, he refused to answer questions about his political affiliations or those of his friends and colleagues. As a resulted he was sacked by MGM, spent a year in prison and was blacklisted, thus bringing a sudden end to his career - though in fact the blacklisting failed, for he wrote many scripts under pseudonyms or fronted by other writers before Hollywood relented. Several of his most famous films first appeared under the names of others to get past the ban.

Though this co-production between Jermyn Street and Moving Theatre opens with Trumbo taking his stand before the HUAC, this is not a dramatisation of the hearings that lead to his blacklisting, but deals with the effect McCarthyism had on Trumbo and on others. Written by his son, it is closely based upon the letters he wrote to friends and family and directly uses their texts skilfully woven into an entertainment that presents a picture of this intriguing man and his response to that situation. As such it is not political in that it presents an argument for Trumbo's ideological beliefs - that might not have been as widely acclaimed in the United States as this play has been, with actors vying to play Trumbo in it. In a more loosely political way this can be seen as a cry for the preservation of American Freedoms which have again been under attack as governments use defence against terrorism as an excuse for removing them.

After Complicit at the Old Vic we shouldn't be surprised at new American plays ducking tough political issues and, while our knowledge of Trumbo's history automatically gives this play political resonance, it is the presentation of the man himself and other's reactions to him that makes this one so enjoyable - and of course, it gives Corin Redgrave a chance to show what a fine actor he can be, despite recent traumatic problems with his health. On a first night when he must also have been troubled about news of his niece Natasha Richardson's accident - though not yet aware of its tragic result - he seized on the material to give an astonishing performance that displayed the irascibilty, acerbity and wonderfully caring qualities of the screenwriter's abrasive personality in all their variety. Another blacklist member of the Ten, Ring Lardner, plundered the dictionary for adjectives to describe his character and Redgrave moves from stentorian demands to gentleness, imbuing the man with his own political passion and zest for life so that each thought comes out freshly: he seems to search the script in his hand for a new twist to an idea rather than reading it. He fulminates against others, including a former friend who writes a milk and water letter of commiseration at Trumbo's situation, provoked to fling out a new epithet at him as always being 'a political hermaphrodite!'

When released from prison (where writer Dashille Hammett took over his prison duties) he took his family to Mexico. Living there in some luxury (with an internal telephone system though no line out!), he scolds tradesmen he thinks are overcharging while continuing to spend money as though he was still earning fat Hollywood fees. Trumbo was something of a champagne socialist in the life style he liked but the evidence here shows a man of real integrity, though someone as volatile as Redgrave makes him would have been very tough to live with!

Trumbo did manage to go on writing, but selling scripts though intermediaries had its problems. One cover was a young man he had met in the army during the Second World War, when no money arrived for a script that had made a successful film he discovered the man had died. Eventually he got the cash and as well as that story we get the very moving letter he wrote to the young man's mother describing their relationship, which Redgrave delivers with great feeling. Another highpoint is a poem which Trumbo wrote from prison for his young son's birthday.

Nick Waring, as Christopher Trumbo, acts as narrator to the story, occasionally giving the son's boyhood view of what was happening, earlier on standing in for the court interrogator. Like the best kind of straight man, he makes him a believable character, not uncritical of his father, and provides a bedrock of support, while making the most of his own opportunities.

John Dove's direction has found a delicate balance between the actors and Phil Hewitt's lighting subtly diverts attention from Christopher when Trumbo is in full flow. Designer Michael Tayor has not given it a specific setting. A rear wall with a montage of Hollywood faces centred on Spencer Tracy is lined with stacked white paper and white box files that suggest both the scriptwriter's output and, more sinisterly, the massive files of the HUAC and the FBI, a setting that foregrounds the actors in front of it, but gives the audience a strong image when the stage is empty.

At Jermyn Street until 21st March, then 24th - 28th March 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton