Trumbo @ Jermyn Street Theatre, London

performed by
Corin Redgrave, Nick Waring

directed by
John Dove
On the evening of Natasha Richardson’s tragic death, I watched her uncle perform the title role of Dalton Trumbo at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

As other members of his family struggled with the media circus surrounding them, Redgrave told the story of a Hollywood legend who sacrificed his career for the right to his own privacy.

Two characters stand on a virtually bare stage and read from scripts, the younger Christopher Trumbo (played by Nick Waring) narrates and tells his father’s story whilst Trumbo Snr comes to life through a series of letters he wrote between 1947 and his death in 1976.
As well as being a prolific letter writer Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, the group of artists, directors, writers and actors who refused to answer the House of Un-American Activities committee’s questions on whether he was a member of the Communist Party in 1947. As a result he was imprisoned, unofficially blacklisted and found it impossible to find work for a number of years. He went from being one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood to living in virtual exile for a number of years; ‘cast adrift’ in Mexico in relative poverty with his wife Cleo and three children. He was forced to churn out a huge number of scripts and write under pseudonyms such as ‘Robert Rich’, the winner of the Oscar for The Brave One in 1956.

It was not until 1960 that he began writing under his own name again, amazingly he only received the official credit for his Oscar winning screenplay for Roman Holiday in just 1993.

The letters that tell his story are written to friends, family and those studio executives he felt most betrayed by over this 13 year period. Some are filled with rhetoric about the state of the nation, some with vitriolic rants against the behaviour of his previous employers and associates who continued to ostracise him and his family even on their return to the US. Some are simply a father conveying his wisdom and life experience to his eldest child.

There are some superficial similarities between Trumbo and Redgrave which help bring to life the screenwriter in front of us. At 69 he is just a year younger than Trumbo when he died of a heart attack and Redgrave himself had a serious heart attack in 2005 and has suffered from ill health ever since. During his performance we are sometimes not sure whether the coughing and pausing is down to the character or Redgrave himself. Unlike Redgrave and his sister Vanessa were also active members of the Worker’s Revolutionary Party.

Christopher Trumbo’s play highlight one of the entertainment industries biggest injustices and one of American history’s darkest period. Ultimately though it is not a political work but a personal tribute to his father, the most moving and interesting moments coming from the letters he wrote to his son.

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