Rock @ Oval House, London

cast list
Bette Bourne
Michael Xavier

directed by
Tamara Harvey
The Hollywood agent Henry Wilson is remembered these days, if he is remembered at all, as the man who represented Rock Hudson.

According to Tim Fountain’s bio-drama, Wilson was also responsible for shaping and sculpting the actor’s public image pretty much from scratch. He took a good looking, but not particularly talented kid from Illinois, and taught him to walk right, talk right and play the Hollywood game, creating a star in the process.

Wilson was a vintage Hollywood, bourbon-for-breakfast type of man, sharp-suited and gruff in manner. He is credited with kick-starting the ‘beefcake craze’ of the 1950s and his books were full of buff young chaps, many of whom boasted names that, as is pointed out, would not look out of place in the credits of a gay porn film: names like Troy Donohue, Chad Everett, Tab Hunter. And Rock Hudson.

Having met Rock, then an aspiring actor from the Mid West called Roy Fitzgerald, at a party he invites the boy back to his wood-paneled office overlooking the LA Strip and sets about changing him into the kind of man that will appeal to all those lonely women sitting out there in the dark of the cinema.

One of the first things he changes is that of his new client’s name. He picks Rock Hudson because the first part sounds masculine and solid and the last part has an American ring to it. In fact we are led to believe that he picked it by looking at a map of America and going through various place names before his eyes alighted on the Hudson River.

He then gets the young actor to change the way he dresses, to switch his neat grey suit for jeans and a plaid shirt, to walk in a more manly fashion and to deepen his rather shrill and nasal voice. Wilson even creates a phony back-story for him about having been discovered while pumping gas. And then in a moment that amusingly demonstrates that red carpet publicity stunts are nothing new, he spray paints his young charge gold so he can attend a pre-Oscar fancy dress party as an Oscar statuette. 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.

Wilson is played by Bette Bourne (who has worked with Fountain before on his one-man play about Quentin Crisp, Resident Alien); in the first half of the play he stumbles over his words on a number of occasions, but he keeps a firm grip on the role, and creates a real sense of poignant desperation in the later scenes where the McCarthyism-generated paranoia about homosexuality starts to have an impact on both men’s lives. But though Wilson too was gay, the play doesn’t really provide any clear insight into what it was like to be closeted in Hollywood at that time, and what, if anything, their shared situation meant to these two men.

Instead it is more concerned with Rock’s transformation, Pygmalion-like, from bright-eyed country boy to chisel-jawed movie star, a process of hardening, toughening. As Rock, Michael Xavier makes this journey physically and emotionally convincing. By the end, having brought ‘Rock Hudson’ into being, Wilson is desrted by his creation and left to sink into alcoholic destitution.

While the play is structurally simple, confining itself to a series of meetings between Rock and Wilson over a period of years, Fountain writes with wit and charm – and, in places, considerable poignancy. The production is also visually very impressive thanks to Morgan Large’s set which has a large window through which you can see an appropriately Technicolour painting of LA – and, though the Hollywood depicted here is a place of the past, a lot of what this low-key but satisfying play shows still resonates.

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