The title of this exceedingly modest Hollywood musical refers to one of the films made by William Haines, an MGM top-five box office star from 1928 to 1935, who refused to follow studio orders to disguise his homosexuality and marry the silent screen vamp Pola Negri, famous for her affairs with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino.
Instead, actively promiscuous, but also happy domiciled with his life partner and on-set stand-in, Jimmy Shields, Haines became an interior decorator to the stars he knew well and, surviving media notoriety and an ugly gay-bashing incident, ceded his leading roles to Robert Montgomery; he designed homes for his former leading lady, Marion Davies, as well as Joan Crawford, Ronald Reagan and the British Ambassador in Regent's Park, London.
It's a good story that writer/director Claudio Macor first recounted as a play at the Hen and Chickens in Islington over 20 years ago, and now re-heats with additional libretto by Amy Rosenthal, jaunty music by Duncan Walsh Atkins and serviceable lyrics by Adam Meggido, who also chipped in on the music.
And it's all wrapped up in an interview with the ageing Jimmy (Clive Ward), before he committed suicide, after Billy Haines died of lung cancer in 1973. But the show doesn't convey the magic or glamour of these great stars, or this amazing period in movies, and the score is barely ho-hum hummable.
Billy wins a New Faces competition in 1922 and makes his way from Virginia to Sunset Boulevard: cue flappers, bright choreography by Nathan M Wright (who did a similar job for the Arcola's knock-out Sweet Smell of Success) and a string of film studio scenes supervised by Mike McShane's glowering Louis B.
McShane and Kay Murphy as Pola Negri have their moments in the spotlight, and some well-crafted numbers to discharge, but the overall musical theatre atmosphere is, well, a bit tacky and second-rate. It's not terrible, but it's nothing special, and it descends to cliché at every opportunity on the subject of fame in show business.
Dylan Turner is shiningly plausible as Billy Haines, but good-looking in an entirely "modern" way. Bradley Clarkson as Jimmy presents an agreeable picture of hangdog loyalty. Faye Tozer, best known as member of the Steps pop group, comes across as more Debbie McGee than the legendary Davies, but she does exude a certain sparkle and commendable eagerness. McShane is good, but too cuddly and rumpled for the monstrous Mayer.
The elision between silent movies and talkies plays less of a part than the Hays Code, evoked to counter the couple's pioneering "out" lifestyle. And it's an extraordinary thing that Billy and Jimmy then make no great bones about making the best of a bad job and rebuilding their lives in the shadow of the studios that banished them.
Photo: Francis Loney