The Kid Stays in the Picture review – from mogul to minor player

Royal Court, London
Robert Evans all but disappears in Simon McBurney’s adaptation of the Hollywood producer’s rollercoaster memoir

Robert Evans, the Hollywood producer, maintains that what matters most is the story. He recently said in an interview that he’s a subscriber to the idea that if you can sum up your story in a paragraph, your film will be a hit. If you can reduce it to a sentence, it will be a blockbuster. Director Simon McBurney has, with James Yeatman, adapted Evans’s 1994 autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture (also a 2002 biopic), and McBurney’s eagerly awaited Complicite production traces Evans’s swift rise, subsequent fall and eventual reinstatement at Paramount Pictures.

The son of a Jewish dentist working in Harlem, Evans became a millionaire after selling the women’s clothing business he started with his brother, and then became a film actor, improbably spotted by Norma Shearer next to the Beverly Hills hotel’s swimming pool. She helped land him a part in Man of a Thousand Faces as her husband, Irving Thalberg, who was, appropriately, a producer.

When Evans, thanks to charm, cunning and luck, became a producer himself, he turned Paramount’s fortunes around with Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, The Godfather and Chinatown. But in 1980 his career went into freefall after he became involved in a cocaine trafficking scandal. It’s a cautionary tale with uncontroversial morals – don’t neglect your private life, don’t take drugs, don’t rely on success. But the question is this: is Evans’s story strong enough (it has taken two paragraphs to condense) to make this show the hit that, with McBurney at the helm, you would expect?

Christian Camargo and Heather Burns in The Kid Stays in the Picture.
Christian Camargo and Heather Burns in The Kid Stays in the Picture. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

It starts with half a dozen actors with microphones, standing in a line like backing vocalists. Behind them is a screen on which we watch a scrapbook of images overlaid by the silhouette of Evans, huskily played by Danny Huston (son of John). This is not the usual comic, ham presentation of Hollywood: you believe in the crazy, driven, dog-eat-dog nature of Evans’s struggle (the role is shared with Heather Burns and Christian Camargo). It’s a show that will be required viewing for anyone interested in the back story of The Godfather (chilling to hear that Henry Kissinger said at the premiere that the film reminded him of Washington).

The ensemble work is at times marvellous – such as when Evans plays the matador in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1957) and the stage is swept up in cloak work. But elsewhere, for all its skilful finesse, the production is, by Complicite standards, static. What is most underwhelming is that Evans – workaholic in designer specs – is a colourful cipher. People in showbiz are fascinated by stories about other people in showbiz, but it is hard to feel anything for Evans; he remains as dimensionless as his silhouette. The story stands but does not run.

At the Royal Court, London until 8 April


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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