Fans of British journalist Toby Young’s memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People - and there must be plenty of them given that more than 100,000 copies have been sold in the UK since its publication in 2002 – should rush down to the West End’s Arts Theatre now. Not because Tim Fountain’s stage version of Young’s best-selling book, about his descent from his dream job as an editor of Vanity Fair to social pariahdom in Manhattan, makes for scintillating theatre (it doesn’t), but because rarely will one ever witness such perfect and, at times, perfectly embarrassing, casting.
When the one-man show premiered at Soho Theatre last year, Jack Davenport starred as Young, prompting endless jibes about the obvious physical differences between the tall, dark and handsome Davenport and the short, bald and bespectacled Young. The author himself admits that it was “most flattering bit of casting since Colin Firth played Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch” but, while complimentary, it wasn’t wholly successful. It was nigh on impossible to accept the good-looking Davenport as the dateless “dweeb” in question.
Here, however, we have the genuine brown-nosing, name-dropping, foot-in-mouth-inserting article. Toby Young plays Toby Young in the stage play of the book written by Toby Young about Toby Young (though he insists he’ll only be appearing until a proper “A-list actor” is available to step in – See 20 Questions, 25 Oct 2004).
Believability in casting then is assured – and yet, on press night, I sat for much of the evening with my mouth agape in disbelief. Astonishment, in fact, that Young could not just write about his own degradations, of character and career, in such a candid and critical fashion but then, humiliation heaped upon humiliation, re-enact them for the paying public and his gleefully schadenfreude-afflicted media peers.
Knowing that Young is not actually acting on stage but in fact reliving one buttock-clinching experience after another - insulting Jim Carrey, being ejected from an Oscars party, snorting cocaine in front of tabloid cameras on the “Cool Britannia” photoshoot, attempting to “rebrand” his own image with a focus group of unimpressed women – feels voyeuristic. Toby Young may be irritating, but you can’t help but feel for him and marvel at his great big balls of steel.
As for his on-stage performance, it’s nervous, jerky, a bit rushed and, under the circumstances, entirely appropriate. He’s also more than competent at amusing impersonations, not least of Vanity Fair’s notorious editor-in-chief, Graydon Carter, and his own father, one of the architect’s of Britain’s welfare state, who provides both Young and his modern fable of celebrity obsession with its moral compass.
- Terri Paddock