“As we romp through the highlights and lowlights of a lively and eventful career, there is much Wodehousian whimsy and theatrical high camp to raise many a smile.”
Society and celebrity photographer Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) was something of a legend in his own lifetime. Also an award-winning designer in the world of fashion, theatre, and film, he was a lifelong diarist, and his journals read like a Who’s Who of the great and the good of the 20th century. His picture portraits of queens and commoners flattered his subjects, but after his death, the pen-pictures revealed in his unexpurgated diaries most certainly did not. These documents are very entertainingly adapted for the stage and performed in this one-man show by Richard Stirling (Bridgerton, The Crown, Jeeves and Wooster).
1930s Rolleiflex camera in hand, the Panama-hatted, linen-suited Stirling looks every inch the suave Beaton, his note-perfect dialogue engagingly capturing the aristocratic hauteur with which his subject viewed the world. As we romp through the highlights and lowlights of a lively and eventful career, there is much Wodehousian whimsy and theatrical high camp to raise many a smile. But in stark counterpoint, the less genial side of Beaton’s character often pokes through. His private thoughts about even royal clients could be mercilessly cruel: one laugh-out-loud moment came when Princess Margaret was referred to as looking like “a wealthy seaside landlady”. No punches are pulled here when it is also revealed that at one point in the 1930s, Beaton was suspected of holding – in common with many of his class at that time – anti-semitic views. He strenuously denied this, but for some time as a result he was blacklisted by several Hollywood studios. It is perhaps revealing that when Beaton himself became the subject of a portrait in oils by the artist Francis Bacon, he loathed the nightmarish Dorian Gray-like vision that Bacon created.
Whilst Beaton may not remain a household name these days, this mid-day show nonetheless attracted a quite sizeable and receptive audience who shared the roomy black-box auditorium with me. Stirling’s fine performance is well supported by a generous selection of Beaton’s most famous images, which are back-projected onto a large screen at the back of the sparsely-furnished set. But perhaps a little more in the way of scenery and a few smart decorative touches might visually improve this show about a man to whom style and appearances were everything? Nonetheless, the sustained applause at the end confirmed my impression of a worthwhile and entertaining piece of theatre.
So come for the photos. Stay for the pithy dialogue. Leave with a smile on your face. Get your smartest coats on and go see this.