A captivating central performance and intelligent lighting design elevates a slightly unremarkable text in Em-Lou Productions’ James Dean is Dead! (Long Live James Dean): a fast-paced and skittish look into the vulnerabilities and strengths of the notoriously enigmatic star.
Jackie Skarvellis’ James Dean is Dead! (Long Live James Dean) is a dense text: as peppy, restless and risk-taking – perhaps – as the ‘Dean’ it sets out to portray. First performed in 2009, and with a posthumously revised script from James Hogan for this new version by Em-Lou Productions, we’re propelled from place to place and time to time – in search of the ‘essence’ of the notoriously enigmatic star before his career (and life) gets violently truncated.
A vivacious performance from Kit Edwards portrays Dean as skittish, flamboyant and often obnoxious – but equally susceptible and desperate to impress. The vulnerability of Hollywood’s then brightest star comes across particularly effectively in Edwards’ recital of lyrics from ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ – one of the show’s few quiet moments, and a haunting highlight. It almost feels like a eulogy to himself.
Darkness similarly exists in Dean’s discussion of the ‘homosexual mafia of Hollywood’. Particularly in our post-Weinstein world, the portrayal of a young man who seems already corrupted – and accepting – of the ‘realities’ of how you need to satisfy producers to get parts is all the more uncomfortable. We hear how he’s developed a reputation and nickname as the ‘human ashtray’, and that he’s begun to enjoy the sensation of cigarette butts branding his skin. Tough stuff to sit through at times (especially when this insatiable sexual appetite appears to be a side effect, or at least interlinked with, abuse) but portrayed with sensitivity and care by Edwards.
In keeping with the portrayed jumpiness of our protagonist, chronology is not of much interest to Skarvellis or Hogan. Like Emma Tompkins’ simple but effective set (splinters of the Porsche Spyder Dean died in), we’re treated to mere and disjointed fragments of a clearly complex life over 60-minutes – and left to piece together quite a lot of it for ourselves.
Perhaps it’s an inevitability considering Dean’s short lifespan, but to the above point, I’m not necessarily confident our protagonist goes on quite enough of a character arch for the piece to be dramatically satisfying. Of course, Dean’s life itself shouldn’t feel ‘complete’ – he had a lot left to give. But dramaturgically, I wanted a slightly more insightful and well-rounded ending. The abruptness to which Dean returns to the car crash site and the pre-curtain call blackout occurs doesn’t quite work for me; I yearned for a slightly more poignant (and probably ‘traditional’) culmination to proceedings just before he returns to his deathbed to punctuate the purpose of the piece more than we are perhaps offered.
There’s some fat in the script of James Dean is Dead!, and moments (the ‘scissor dance’ for instance – which seemed to achieve little other than what seems a nigh-on mandatory for King’s Head’s programming: a white man taking his shirt off) which it’d be better without. Em-Lou Productions’ version of the (I’d say, imperfect) source material is strong on many levels though.
Clancy Flynn’s lighting design is particularly noteworthy: there’s something brilliantly cinematic and stylised to each state, a lovely implication (linking adeptly to the text – especially when Dean retreats into fantasy to describe being taken advantage of like a stand-off from a Western) that Dean’s mind is constantly ‘in the movies’. That’s where he feels comfortable – when events are distanced far enough from reality for their actual implications to not haunt him. Peter Darney’s direction seems assured and sensible, and Edwards’ captivating and charismatic performance adds much-needed shade and nuance to a somewhat relentless text.