I had thought that, over my time writing for The Stage and musicOMH.com, I'd been to most fringe venues in London at one point or another. I've done my fair share of pub backrooms in Forest Hill in Chiswick, hell, I'd even ventured into the here-be-monsters wilds of zone 4. But I've not ever seen anything at Oval House in South London before now. This one was new to me. So, of course, I did the sensible thing and left it to the last minute to plan my journey there. As a result I only just staggered through the door, soggy and flustered, five minutes before the start time, clawing my way to the drinks table. Andrew, of the West End Whingers, my companion for the night, courteously pretended not to notice as I glugged down my glass of bubbly like a woman who'd gone a week without water.
Andrew had charitably agreed to accompany me to Tim Fountain's new play Rock. This is a two-hander about Rock Hudson, or Roy Fitzgerald as he was at the start, and his agent, Henry Wilson, a gruff bourbon-for-breakfast old school Hollywood type. Wilson is credited with kick-starting the 'beefcake craze' of the 1950s and boasted a book full of buff young chaps – many boasting names that, as Fountain points out in the play, would not look out of place in the credits of a gay porn film: Troy Donohue, Chad Everett, Tab Hunter.
After changing his name and giving him a made up backstory about having been discovered while pumping gas, Wilson teaches the boy from Illinois how to walk right, talk right and play the Hollywood game. He also instructs Rock in the golden rules regarding his personal life: don't fuck anyone you shouldn't and, if you do, make sure you're not seen.
As a Pygmalion-type tale of transformation, the play is entertaining and often very wittly written. But, though both men were gay, the play doesn't really provide any particular insight into what it was like to be closeted in Hollywood. I would have been fascinated to find out more about Rock's marriage or what, if anything, these men's shared situation meant to them, but such details were thin on the ground
In his early screen tests Hudson struggled to master his lines, an affliction Bette Bourne appeared to be suffering with too. He seemed to be struggling considerably in the first half, but pulled it together after the interval in order to convey the full poignancy of Wilson's fall, via booze, blackmail and McCarthy-era anti-gay paranoia into destitution and an early death.
The set was particularly striking for a fringe production, with a swirling colourful painting of LA outside the large window of Wilson's office. The play also manages to feature not one, but two scenes where Michael Xavier (who does a fair job of portraying the actor's journey from small town boy to Hollywood star) is required to strip down to his tight white jockeys. Oh and, in an admirable feat of, well, something, Andrew and I managed to squeeze in pre show, post show and interval drinks, which is always good.