Review by Sam Waite
Hollywood, we’ve been told a thousand times in a thousand ways, is a place of endless indignation and outright cruelty. The theatre, viewed alternately as film’s superior inspiration or its dying ancestor, can be just as heartless and even quicker to shoot down a promising talent. These lessons have been learned many times over by Mildred Grable, with whom we share an hour and change in this world premiere piece.
Mildred – Millie, as a young ingenue – is an actor-turned-agent whose “manicure has bigger balls” than any of the men she works alternately with and against. Early on she insists that she and a fellow industry-type speak again in an hour, an hour we proceed to observe in real-time as Mildred alternately gets on with menial tasks and waxes lyrical to the audience about her life and career. Set up as a mock audition for the role of herself, the simple act of placing a camera on the auditorium steps creates a surprisingly effective framing device which dilutes some of the awkwardness by giving her a reason to shatter the fourth wall so immediately and fully.
Unfortunately, this simple moment is one of few highlights of an hour in which tired clichés are constantly present in both the dialogue and the presentation itself (no spoilers, but there’s a literal Chekhov’s gun. Set in or close to 1960 – Judi Dench’s Juliet and Sean Connery’s Bond casting are name-checked – the play opens on an exclamation of “Vivien f***ing Leigh!” Much of Mildred’s back-story hinging on connections to and comparisons with the famed starlet. The choice to fill her fictional West End, Broadway and Hollywood with real-life stars of the age has the curious effect of diluting Mildred further, making it glaringly obvious that we’ve seen her type too many times to count.
To her credit, star Debbie Chazen is genuinely affecting in a moment where our anti-heroine relives her audition for Leigh’s role in Gone with the Wind. Chazen’s Mildred feels genuinely lost in the moment, wanting nothing more than to pour herself into the performance. Sadly, moments of such poignance fail to materialise elsewhere in the script – even a moment which could read as a tragic confessional is dulled by how crudely drawn the character of Mildred Grable is. I couldn’t find much of an emotional arc to follow, with her beginning the evening as bitter and defeated as she ended it. Chazen is by no means lacking in talent, but she isn’t able to create a personality we can root for from the sitcom-y insults and wasted-dreams monologues she’s been given.
Likewise, she can only do so much with the perfunctory and repetitive blocking. Again and again, she crosses the office set to a drinks table, pours herself a martini, returns to the balcony behind her desk to make some cutting comment about the many famous faces gathered below, then sits back at her desk to type a letter or make a call. Perhaps a subtle, gradual change in some of these movements could have helped to build towards an emotional climax – the drink stronger and less focused on flavour; the paper less deliberately placed – but at the moment they serve only to keep Chazen from standing stranded in one spot.
Some credit must be given to the admittedly non-descript but always capable compositions of Guillermo Názara and the surprisingly effective lighting design from Alistair Lindsay. Their contributions help to ease the potentially awkward transitions from the ongoing monologue to the moments of fantasising and thoughtfulness which periodically interrupt it. The aforementioned moment of tragic confession is lit in a way that suggests our leading lady slipping into a dream-like state where her past sins and slights against her can be spoken of freely.
Writer-director Keith Merrill clearly has a decent knowledge of the era he’s chosen to set Irrelevant in – even if only the entertainment side of things. His name-checking Judi Dench’s early work on the stage, Sidney Poitier’s major breakthroughs as a Black film star, and the sleazy studio-system ways of Darryl F. Zanuck demonstrate a wide-ranging repertoire of pop culture facts. He’s also a more than capable writer of dialogue – or more a series of monologues here – with this element, despite being over-familiar, always sounding authentically human. What’s a shame is that he hasn’t been able to create something more inventive or original – his ending presumes an investment in a character’s fate but finds her, emotionally, exactly where we first met her and knowing plenty about what she’s done but very little about who she is.
Irrelevant as it stands now is far from a perfect piece of work. However there are brief moments of charm in Merrill's writing that suggest a re-working could lead to something truly promising - Mildred Grable could use more development but she's the kind of archetype who will always find an audience. While this play's message may have been shaky, the underdogs of the arts can never have enough of their own to root for.
Irrelevant plays at the Seven Dials Playhouse until 28th January. Tickets from https://www.sevendialsplayhouse.co.uk/
Photos by Alistair Lindsay