The Kid Stays in the Picture review – Robert Evans gets the Citizen Kane treatment

Royal Court, London
Simon McBurney’s adaptation of the Hollywood tycoon’s memoir is technically brilliant and often breathtaking but it adds little to his familiar story

Robert Evans’s Hollywood memoir, from which this show takes its title, is a racier version of a wheel-of-fortune morality play. As head of pictures at Paramount film studios, Evans saved an ailing business from ruin with hits such as Love Story and The Godfather. Once a king, he then plumbed the depths after his marginal involvement in a drugs-bust and then in a murder case. It’s one of the most gripping movie-books I’ve ever read, but, for all the technical brilliance of Simon McBurney’s stage version, the production replicates the story rather than adding significantly to it.

Like the book, this adaptation by McBurney and James Yeatman starts with the premiere of The Godfather in 1972 and Evans’s desperate attempt to get Henry Kissinger and Marlon Brando to lend it their presence. Naturally, he succeeds. The story then backtracks to explain how the son of a New York dentist became a major Hollywood player. We see Evans as a young actor: it was his unlikely casting as a bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises that prompted Darryl Zanuck to utter the line that gives the story its title.

Astonishingly, Evans finds himself pitched into rescuing Paramount from disaster and, with Rosemary’s Baby, instantly hits the jackpot. But after a golden decade of success, his marriage to Ali McGraw falls apart and, having turned independent producer, he becomes a pariah through his unwitting involvement in scandal.

McBurney’s basic idea is to tell the story as if it were a movie: almost a modern Citizen Kane. With the aid of Anna Fleischle and Simon Wainwright as set and video designer respectively, we get the full works. There are extracts from Evans movies.

Thomas Arnold, Christian Camargo and Heather Burns in The Kid Stays in the Picture
Tour de force ... Thomas Arnold, Christian Camargo and Heather Burns in The Kid Stays in the Picture. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Live action is filmed by a camera on rail tracks and projected on to a big screen. Photos and cuttings are placed on top of a downstage fridge and shot from above, a device used in McBurney’s production of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity. Pete Malkin’s sound design, which makes Evans’s later series of strokes reverberate like pistol shots, and Paul Anderson’s film-noir lighting, add to the show’s relentless virtuosity.

It is all breathtaking but, in the end, Evans remains a cipher. Although not given to introspection, he reveals himself in the book in a way he rarely does here. His vanity, his womanising, his occasional stupidity and his determination not to let the bastards grind him down all emerge strongly in print. In the stage version, we get his dynamism and flair, but little of his capacity for molten friendship, especially with the ever-loyal Jack Nicholson, or of his passionate belief in the vitalising power of the producer. He simply becomes a tycoon permanently on the end of two phones.

Christian Camargo and Heather Burns in The Kid Stays in the Picture.
Relentless virtuosity … Christian Camargo and Heather Burns in The Kid Stays in the Picture. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The cast of eight work prodigiously to evoke the furious energy of Hollywood. Although they are not credited individually, I would certainly commend Christian Camargo, who has the lean good looks of Evans at his peak, Heather Burns who plays his nattily suited younger self as well as McGraw and Farrow, while Danny Huston provides the silhouetted narration and embodies the older Evans with rumpled charm.

The show is a tour de force but I wonder if it is strictly necessary. It also alarms me to see the Royal Court, traditionally the home of the dramatist, turning itself, however dazzlingly, into a director’s theatre.

  • At Royal Court theatre, London, until 8 April. Box office: 020-7565 5000.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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