[The following contains spoilers.]
“The Hollywood Effect” is another play from Mermaids, the theatre company of St Andrews’ University. As with the Nottingham New Theatre, Mermaids are a brand and a unit. Their plays always seem to come with the same stamp of character, regardless of who the writer and cast are in any given year or production. The standard Mermaids play is gently intelligent and, depending upon how I am feeling when I watch it, pleasantly relaxed or somewhat lacking in urgency. They are a bit like the NNT after a couple of joints. “The Hollywood Effect,” a play that roams around snacking on loosely connected stories, conforms to this pattern.
There are three talking heads and each of them is unduly preoccupied with Hollywood movies. The first (Hannah Gilchrist) feasts on romcoms and she is worried that love is rather too brusque in real life. The irony is that she is hardly wretched, spotty, or anorexic. Instead, this character has the lovely personality and perfect prettiness of a generic romcom heroine. We probably have the feeling that this character will go far and be fine.
The second (Alice Robson) has just begun living by herself. Her own predilection is for slasher horror films and, missing her parents, she grows increasingly paranoid when alone in her flat at night. This character sounds smart and self-deprecating, and so the silliness of her fear – a silliness straight from her films – creates a bump and an odd graze in the story. This monologue is, at least in its writing, the least convincing of the three.
With the third, the actor Henry Roberts has a huge, complicated hamburger of a geek to tuck into. His character is a bashful but passionate fan of Tom Cruise’s movies. The inevitable jokes about Cruise’s height are deployed sparingly, though they each deserve a cheer. It soon becomes apparent that, with some subtle turning of tables, this character has a bromance or even something of a crush on Cruise. A tender disruption in his family history will also gently sanction his dippiness.
It is unclear whether these characters are mimicking what they see on the screen or else choosing their films to serve their own needs. Each of them is an adult child who is fondly remembering absent parents. Their monologues are interspersed with brief group scenes at a train station, where two mothers are becoming stuck together in an uneasy conversation. Were this scene from the heyday of Hollywood, adventure would be in the air and the encounter between the two strangers would open up amazing freedoms and possibilities. Yet reality here tyrannises and mocks the women – they can never manage to honestly smile at each other, let alone get cinematically spirited away together. One woman is secretive and the other odd, just like most strangers are on lonely rail platforms.
There is nonetheless a lingering mystery at the station, just as no cold water is totally poured over the first character’s romance, the second character is never exorcised of her horror, and the third is not straightened out. We ultimately cannot dispense with the dream factory and the Hollywood effect.