Whatever Happened to the Lead?

Tue 20th – Sat 24th May 2014


Catherine Foot

at 09:21 on 21st May 2014



Grab a ticket to ‘Whatever Happened to the Lead’, sit back and witness chaos unfold in this hilarious satire of the golden age of Hollywood as observed from the stained and slovenly apartment of failing actor James Redgrave. Henry Wilkinson’s farcical production demolishes the fourth wall in a spectacularly ostentatious fashion, leaving the audience reeling from the whirlwind of dance sequences, Julie Andrews and Charlie Chaplin cameos, and the apparent murder of Suzy the sound technician.

The ‘Lead’, portrayed with excruciatingly palpable desperation by Ash Rosen, is throwing a party to celebrate his return to the stage in a dubious play. A whole host of caricatures descend upon his grotty London apartment, including his jocky American agent Howie (Charlie James Robb), the neurotic, fame-obsessed Johnsons (Molly O’Connor and Paul Tait) and his glamorous old flame and Hollywood star Elizabeth (Natasha Cutler). With the help of his cleaner Giles (Lily Lindon), James’ party begins swimmingly until the arrival of his ghastly mother Betty (Em Miles), at which point events descend into pandemonium and James is incapacitated…

Wilkinson exploits meta-theatricality to dazzling comic effect; allowing each character their own, often befuddled monologue until Betty Redgrave tears apart their hysterically melodramatic freeze-frames with near-psychotic aggression. The characters repeatedly attempt to control the lighting and sound effects, their larger-than life characters self-consciously attempting to dominate the production and stretching the limits of the confined stage (a practical issue highlighted by a witty reference to ‘The West Wing’). A personal favourite moment was the nod to ‘Airplane!’ as the desperate party-goers line up to attempt to revive James in increasingly drastic ways. The numerous dance sequences and bizarre cameos add to a sense of bewildered delight and raucous humour that dominates Wilkinson’s play. The audience participation and frequent references to us spectators as ‘the people out there’ worked delightfully.

However the key to the overwhelming success of this production is the relentless energy of the ensemble cast. I wondered whether the pace would flag in the second act with the absence of Redgrave but his replacement, the gin-soaked understudy Frank (played with perfect drunkenness by Rox Middleton) and his unbearably shrill, diva co-star Katherine Davis (Eleanor Colville) take the stage with uproarious desperation as the commencement of their doomed production hurtles toward them. Their presence, plus that of Wilkinson portraying the preposterously cartoonish producer Monty Jones, propels the second half of the play towards a climax that is unavoidably overshadowed by the journey. The relentless comic pace never slackens, and no character seems underwritten, each given such gems to exploit as ‘I’ll have gin on the rocks, no ice...’ and ‘I’ll castrate your face!’ Standout performances include Lindon as the drily witty foil to Rosen’s overemotional actor and Miles as his horrific mother.

It seems pedantic picking out individual performances when it was the strength of the cast as a whole that made this farce a hysterical evening. The performers made little effort to hide their giggles from the audience, effectively heightening the audience’s inclusiveness in the dynamic of the production and only adding to hysterical tone of the play. Wilkinson achieved exactly what he intended to; the audience left the Corpus Playroom elated, reeling from the absurd string of events that solves the mystery of ‘Whatever Happened To The Lead?’


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