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The Kid Stays in the Picture review at Royal Court, London – ‘weary and well-worn’

Danny Huston and Christian Camargo in The Kid Stays In The Picture at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Simon McBurney, whose last solo show for Complicite was the astonishing sensory experience of The Encounter, which cocooned each theatregoer in a soundscape delivered via personal headphones, returns now with a new work that he has co-directed and co-adapted, which attempts a similarly audacious feat. The Kid Stays in the Picture seeks to put us in the middle of an impressionistic film being made in front of us, about a man whose life, after an early stint selling women’s clothes, was spent making films.

Its main subject is Robert Evans, now 86, who has clearly had an eventful life, from model and movie actor to head of Paramount Pictures and then solo film producer. He oversaw such hits as Love Story, The Godfather, Chinatown and Marathon Man.

The cast of characters who are checked off here – many of whom are directly impersonated – includes Norma Shearer, Ernest Hemingway, Ava Gardner, Henry Kissinger, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Marlon Brando, Ali McGraw, Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. (Polanski is impersonated by an actor who could be a stand-in for McBurney, too.)

The play charts Evans’ rise and seemingly inevitable fall, which involved being brought down in a cocaine sting and connected to a murder. But for all the fragmentary and disorientating approach of how his story is told, it is really a fairly conventional show-business biography dressed up as experimental, multi-media theatre.

Frankly, Singin’ in the Rain has more insight into the behind-the-scenes machinations of making movies (and contains far better choreography). As this production progresses down its weary, well-worn path, the only intrigue is in watching the cast trying to avoid watching the autocue too closely; it is sited at the front of the circle and we can see it all too conspicuously, as it is reflected in the glass panels of Anna Fleischle’s antiseptic box set. (This is presumably necessary because if any of them lose their way, it would have disastrous consequences for the intricate technical cueing of the show, as was the case with The Encounter, which also relied on an autocue.)

The ensemble cast perform multiple roles and several assume the role of Evans across the evening, but he is mostly voiced by the American film and TV actor Danny Huston, who is perversely seen primarily in silhouette. All are amplified, giving the proceedings a further disembodied feeling.

In a mixed cast of American actors (including Heather Burns, Christian Camargo, Max Casella and Ajay Naidu) and British or Britain-based actors (Thomas Arnold, Clint Dyer and Madeleine Potter) no one is given much chance to make an impression above the technical amplifications and projections of their work.

The play about film-making has been turned into an anti-theatrical event by its reliance on recreating the conditions of film too closely.

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Misfiring stage play about film-making that's too much like a film