Moonlight and Magnolias

May 7, 2016 | By | Reply More

★★★☆☆      Intriguing

Studio at the Festival Theatre: Wed 4 – Sat 7 May 2016
Review by Thom Dibdin

Race, politics and melodrama battle it out with pure farce in Leitheatre’s take on  Moonlight and Magnolias, the story behind the making of Gone with the Wind.

Playing at the Studio Theatre to Saturday, the company deliver an intriguing evening which will particularly delight fans of the film itself, although they never quite get under the skin of their characters.

Fleming, Selznick, Poppenghul, and Hecht. Photo: Marion Donahoe

Fleming, Selznick, Poppenghul, and Hecht. Photo: Marion Donahoe

What characters they are, though, and what a set up.

It’s 1939 in Hollywood and bigshot producer David O. Selznick is not a happy man. He’s just shut down production of Gone with the Wind after three weeks filming – at the cost of $50K a day – sacked his director and torn up the original script.

This was the most hotly anticipated movie ever, remember. The one he saw 1,400 actresses for, before plumping for Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. The one he delayed for two years until Clark Gable became available to play Rhett Butler. The biggest movie ever, at the time.

The pressure was on, then, to deliver something pretty awesome. Not to mention that his professional reputation and personal fortune were on the line.

Enter script-doctor specialist Ben Hecht to rewrite the script and hotshot movie director Victor Fleming – pulled off that year’s other big movie, the Wizard of Oz, which had only two weeks left to shoot.

bananas and peanuts

Holed up in Selznick’s office, the trio spent five days rewriting the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1.5 million-selling novel. A novel which Hecht had not read, and now did not have time to do.

Fleming and Selznick act out scenes from the novel. Photo Marion Donahoe

Fleming and Selznick act out scenes from the novel. Photo Marion Donahoe

So much is historical fact. Ron Hutchinson’s hilarious and biting script then imagines what went on over those five days, in which the trio saw nobody except Selznick’s secretary, Miss Poppenghul, and ate nothing but bananas and peanuts.

Under Rik Kay’s solid direction, the company succeed in bringing out much of the nuance of the situation. David Rennie is most convincing as Hecht, nervous, driven and contemptuous of his material. While Josh Ingram is suitably overbearing and bullying as Fleming but Kevin Rowe doesn’t quite convince that he is a big shot producer as Selznick.

That said, the trio bring out the bones of the script, which gets right into the Hollywood system at the time and finds some very strong material about the status of Jews in America – both Hecht and Selznick were Jewish.

The politics is important, as highlighted in the show’s title which is a euphemism (allegedly coined on the set of Gone with the Wind) for the romanticisation of the pre-civil war American south: soft focussing on sweet scent and moody lighting when the reality was of an elitist, slave-owning society.

the complexities are clear

This gets most fascinating when Hecht and Selznick are, on the one hand, arguing over support for the organisation saving Jews from Hitler’s Germany, and on the other perpetuating the myth of a benign American South. And on this element, the company ensure that the complexities are clear.

Such political tension is not the meat of the play, however. That lies in what should be an utterly hilarious comedy, in which Fleming and Selznick act out the scenes from the novel for Hecht’s behalf. And while this is done with enough humour to provide a modicum of laughs, Kay never really attempts to get to grips with the farce of the situation.

Meanwhile Elona C Smith seems unsure where to take Miss Poppenghul and ends up swithering between Hollywood’s own cliches of a secretary: between Girl Friday and airhead. But she is at her best when playing the character straight.

Derek Blackwood’s set, lit by Stephen Hajducki, is more than serviceable, making you feel that outside Selznick’s office window, the California sun is beating down.

There are plenty of ideas on this stage, and Leitheatre manage to bring many of them into play, but there is certainly a lot more which goes untapped.

Running time: 1 hour 55 mins (including one interval)
Festival Theatre Studio, Potterrow EH8 9BL
Wednesday 4 – Saturday 7 May, 2016
Evenings: 7.30pm.

Leitheatre website: http://leitheatre.com/

ENDS

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