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Review: The Kid Stays in the Picture (Royal Court)

Simon McBurney's production explores the life of film producer Robert Evans

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

There are lots of things you think when reading Robert Evans's coruscating memoir of his time as a Hollywood player, The Kid Stays in the Picture. Wow, this man had some life, might be one as he traces a journey that sees him starting as a bit part actor with the last of the golden age stars such as James Cagney and Ava Gardner, rising to run Paramount Studios at the age of 37, and despite an entire lack of producing experience coaxing into life such classics of cinema as Love Story, The Godfather, and Chinatown.

Gosh, how did he survive, might be another, as he - with the same devastating honesty - charts his decline, through drugs busts, addiction, strokes and ruin and out the other side thanks to the ties of friendship and affection. And you might just think this is one of the best things you have ever read about the movie business and about America itself, in all its glorious mix of stardust and sleaze.

What you are unlikely to think is – well, that would make a great play. Evans' tone, his wry, self-critical voice is so strong that it's hard to imagine its transition from page to stage, even if it did prompt a great documentary. But Simon McBurney and his co-adaptor James Yeatman clearly did think there was something there that would make this adaptation a wonderful project for Complicite and roped in a raft of producers including Barbara Broccoli and Evans himself to fulfil their vision.

Perhaps inspired by the huge success of The Encounter, in which McBurney took a similarly unlikely story and transformed the stage into an entire world with the help of clever audio, they now haul Evans' rich life into view, by the simple dint of asking eight actors to recite large chunks of the text, surrounded by a multi-layered collage of images that both conjure the scenes they are living and the films that Evans ultimately made.

It is clever, ambitious, and intelligently done. But for me, it felt pointless, flattening the vitality of Evans' life and words by the need physically to embody them.

It didn't help that on the night I saw it, the technology and the multiple screens (set by Anna Fleischle, video designer Simon Wainwright, lighting Paul Anderson) were often not working properly, so the performers were either not fully embedded in the projections, or were plunged into darkness. When the technology did function it was sometimes dazzlingly effective as in the scenes where Evans is glimpsed behind a screen, in his own home, or in the way a fridge is used as a virtual photo album to show stars of the past.

But even if everything had functioned perfectly, the conception of the show treats the actors as ciphers, all playing Evans but also seamlessly impersonating every other character. Danny Huston (a resonant bit of casting since his father John is such an important presence in Chinatown) spends most of the first half talking through a microphone in silhouette. In the second half, we occasionally glimpse his face and his wardrobe, but the action principally focuses around Christian Camargo who embodies the groovy Seventies incarnation of Evans at the front of the stage.

No one has a chance to make any truthful impact in this swiftly changing gallery of microphoned imitations and quick costume changes, though there is one marvellous Brando moment. Neither the performers nor the people they are supposed to embody take on fully-realised life. The women suffer particularly badly: Heather Burns does at least get to play the young Evans and his one-time wife Ali MacGraw, but poor Madeleine Potter ends up trapped with a succession of secretaries and sexpots.

That she does it very well – and that the entire cast remains committed and skilful throughout – doesn't quite justify their underuse, or this strange transposition which fatally muddles the dramatic and the theatrical. If you want to experience the undeniable drama of Evans' extraordinary life, you'd be much better off buying the book.

The Kid Stays in the Picture runs at the Royal Court until 8 April.