It would be difficult to think of a play that Chris Monks could have chosen for his first as SJT artistic director that would have been so simultaneously bold and conservative as Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias. It’s a relatively youthful imagined account of the frantic week of screenplay repairs that enabled Gone with the Wind to go to production in 1939 after it started to look like a heap of burnt banknotes. Not only did it meet tepid responses from some commentators when produced previously but, as a screwball comedy, it’s brashly American, in contrast to the Englishness of Ayckbourn. This said, on the simplest level it’s precisely what the SJT is known for – an affable comedy without postmodern detours.
The entire play is set in one room populated by three characters, producer David O Selznick, screenwriter Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming, with occasional appearances from Selznick’s secretary Miss Poppenghul. Kieran Buckeridge is a captivating Selznick, zipping between rapid-fire bossiness and winning eloquence and, as is essential in this sort of comedy, supplies the appropriate amount of cartoony movement. His impersonation of Gone with the Wind’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara, begun with a twist of the hips, a thrust of the neck and a flinging of the right breast of his suit jacket over his shoulder, is among the most prominent examples.
John Killoran (Hecht) and Pete Gallagher (Fleming), however, sometimes execute physical comedy more assuredly than verbal. Indeed, the space, furniture and props within Jan Bee Brown’s safe but stylish set are exploited throughout to create something like a human firework display. Killoran’s swings of protest and disbelief do more to articulate Hecht’s dismay at what he regards as the foolishness and artistic bankruptcy of the project than most of what he says. Likewise, Gallagher plays Fleming as an all-American oaf which, though it hardly makes for a watertight portrayal of his mental muscle, ensures that no slapstick balloons are burst by stray prongs of subtlety. A scene in which Fleming scavenges for a banana skin still housing fruit is handled with particularly apposite excess. With both characters, you feel that quirks are left latent, but the overriding physicality and silliness of the piece means that this doesn’t matter too much. However, their semi-skimmed accents are occasionally distracting. Finally, though her role is small, Clare Corbett ought to be commended for the varied mileage that she is able to wring from one much-uttered line: “Yes, Mr Selznick.”
Monks et al have done a solid job with a play that contains some genuine wit and likeable daftness yet feels hollow when it concludes. (I definitely interpreted this as a fault of the play, not the production.) Those weaknesses that the production has don’t, crucially, prevent it from being entertaining. However, I suspect that Moonlight and Magnolias is a fairly tactical choice, and that we’ll have to wait for Monks’ adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance to really get an idea of what he will bring to the SJT.