Oval House, London SE11
Opened 29 May, 2008

Before he turned his own sex life into a media commodity, Tim Fountain wrote a number of biographical plays and adaptations, of which the most admired is Resident Alien on the life of Quentin Crisp. Bette Bourne, who played Crisp, now makes his third appearance in a Fountain play. In a slight departure for both, this is a two-hander rather than a solo piece.
The Rock of the title is Hollywood wannabe Roy Fitzgerald, renamed after the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson river by agent Henry Willson, who represented Hudson for nearly 20 years. In a series of scenes in Willson’s office between 1948 and 1976 we see the agent effectively creating an American beefcake icon out of a gawky Illinois boy, juggling the media, the law and private blackmailers to keep a lid on Hudson’s homosexuality and finally declining after the star’s departure into alcoholism and bankruptcy.
Fountain supplies a polished portrait of cynical Sunset Strip myth-making, as Willson more or less creates “Rock Hudson” out of whole cloth, advising his uneasy charge, “It’s lying – you’ll get used to it.” Until the secrecy and suppression get the better of him, Willson is in Bourne’s performance unflappable except when his own status is threatened: one of the two major eruptions comes early on, when the naïve Hudson declines his representation because he already has an agent, the other later when Hudson is approached directly about taking the lead role in the movie Giant rather than being petitioned through Willson. Bourne is similarly serene; he does not have the firmest of memories for lines, but whenever he fluffs he does not for an instant break character. This is a play about control; Willson has it, and so does Bourne, with glasses and his grey hair slicked back lending him a remarkable likeness to fellow theatrical maverick Patrick Barlow.
Michael Xavier is efficient, not least in dropping his voice an octave when Fitzgerald becomes Hudson, but he is clearly the supporting player. The play as a whole feels a little over-inflated at an hour and fifty minutes including an interval. It goes over established territory in subject, themes and style alike with diligence and some flair, but breaks no new ground.

[Footnote: one of my favourite on-the-night witticisms was provided by Mike Bradwell at this performance, the venue being opposite the cricket ground: "Everybody bowling from the gasworks end tonight, then..."]

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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