Dark Voyager

By John Misto. Castle Hill Players. Pavilion Theatre, Doran Drive Castle Hill. April 5 – 27, 2019

Reviewed : 5 April 2019

Photo : Chris Lundie

As the premiere community theatre production of John Misto’s play, this is another coup for a theatre company that is prepared to give its directors and actors ‘some meat’ – and challenge its audience with something a little bit different.

Dark Voyager is set Hollywood in 1962, in the home of infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. It’s the opening night of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and, for reasons that are a lot more underhand than mere gossip, Hopper has invited its warring stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, for drinks. When a slightly substance-affected Marilyn Monroe arrives, ‘pigeon among the cats’ might best describe the possibilities that ensue.

Misto is more than just a playwright. His research is always incredibly sound and solid. And for this play he immersed himself in the fact and fiction that was the stuff of post-war movie stars – and the politicians who lusted after them. Contemporary American political rakes had worthy predecessors – Richard Nixon, the Kennedys, J Edgar Hoover – all of whom are palpably exposed by Misto in a plot that blends history and gossip with creative artistic licence.

Whilst the play, first produced by the Ensemble Theatre in 2014, is a black comedy, where one-liners and bitchy barbs come thick and fast, it sits very securely in 2019 amid the many revelations of #Me Too. Misto pays homage to the feisty women who fought hard to make their way to the top – and stay there – in the precarious world that was … and still is … celebrity stardom. As well as the intelligence, quick wittedness and pure guts they needed to survive, he reveals their vulnerability and their bravado. Some of the sacrifices they made along the way will surprise – among them the stories behind “Bette Davis’ eyes” and Joan Crawford’s broad shoulders.

Recreating these famous screen stars on stage demands research and hard work – a challenge that fastidious director Annette van Roden and her cast have met head on. Weeks of concentrated night time rehearsals, and research into the characters, their accents and their idiosyncrasies, have resulted in a production of which van Roden and the company can be proud. The set, designed ‘remotely’ from Hobart by Peter Rhodes, and atmospherically lit by Mehran Mortezaei, locates the play, with its cunningly chosen costumes, faithfully in the colours and contours of its time.

Annette Emerton takes on the role of the formidable Hedda Hopper, relishing the manipulative deviousness of the character and her calculating cunning. Emerton opens the play and neatly sets its tenor, referencing “Jedgar’ Hoover as she gives her young ‘butler’ Skip instructions for the night.

The first guest to arrive is Bette Davis, played with spirited conviction by Faith Jessel, who makes excellent use of the space and the lighting as she fires insult after insult with comedic flair. The constant malice and spite of this role – and the fact that it is used to move the plot – must be exhausting, but Jessel sustains the pace and energy, and the timing of her constant cracks.

Leigh Scanlon as Joan Crawford is tall and elegant, emulating the chic sophistication of Crawford and the confidence she draws from the adulation of her fans. She faces Davis’ insults with taut restraint and calculated scorn. As they argue over who should get top billing for Baby Jane, she skilfully goads Davis into agreeing to a wager that will eventually reveal her frailty – as well as introducing Marilyn Monroe into the play.

Monroe, played by Jacqui Wilson, arrives in a breathy haze – literally and metaphorically – clutching the arm of awe-struck Skip. Lured by the message from Crawford, but confused in a pill-induced fug, she is dishevelled, perplexed. Dressed in a long, cream satin robe, Wilson finds the artless grace Misto has given the character and the naivety that has led to her fall from fame, and the future that awaits her.

Photo : Chris Lundie

The character of Skip is not just a foil to the vanities of the women he serves. Misto has cleverly woven him into their back stories – as is revealed, bit by enticing bit, in the second act. Adam Garden shines in the ‘persona’ that Skip has created in his ploy to reveal his true self. He is cheekily subservient to Hopper, mischievously disrespectful to Davis, warily watchful of Crawford, shamelessly bewitched by Monroe – then hopelessly diminished as he makes a thwarted bid to be accepted.

This production is tightly directed and tightly performed, making the most of the play’s humour and its revelations. Misto has probably packed too much into the second act, but this energetic and committed cast meets that challenge with fortitude.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine