The Screenwriter’s Daughter is a compelling tale of a strained relationship between a father and daughter, separated by the upheaval of the Sixties but bound together by a preoccupation with legacy and, as much as they try to deny it, love.
It is based on the life of Ben Hecht (Paul Easom), an aging screenwriter, known best for his work in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Having written the likes of His Girl Friday, Gone with the Wind and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, the play depicts him as an old man, nostalgic and deeply concerned with how he will be remembered. It is, perhaps, fitting that he is uncredited for his three most famous works (and the ones most mentioned in the play).
Amongst all this looking back, his daughter, Jenny (Samantha Dakin), is looking forward, on the brink of taking a trip to Europe with the notorious Living Theatre company, known for their experimental staging and protests against the mainstream. Her father disapproves, describing the troupe as a bunch of ‘brainwashers’, but Jenny, with a youth that her father has forgotten, thinks she can change the world.
The play centres around the two in conversation with one another and is staged so intimately in the Leicester Square Theatre Lounge, that the audience feels as though it is intruding on a family affair. Their conversations are often fraught and mocking, both parties as clever as each other, enjoying their verbal sparring as much as they are frustrated by it. It is reminiscent of the stories Hecht created, taking delight in strong, clever women holding their own in conversation with their love interest.
The play uses Ben Hecht’s role as a storyteller to reveal, with the omniscience of a narrator, that Jenny, who joins the Living Theatre against her father’s wishes, dies of a drug overdose aged 27. And it’s quite a heart-stopping moment.
He tells her story with all the tropes and tools of a Broadway and Hollywood tycoon, and his nightmarish visions are accompanied by projections of grainy images of protests from the Sixties, narrated by two members of the Living Theatre (Tom Hunter and Laura Pradelska) – the embodiment of what Jenny found subversive, vocal and righteous.
But as much as Jenny’s mortality is examined (so much so that the audience hopes she’ll defy her fate and live), so too is Hecht’s. ‘Do you think anyone will care to remember you in 50 years?’ she asks her father. It’s an awkward moment for the audience, as it appears most are largely unaware of his legacy before the play.
This feeling is later accompanied by a deep sadness when Hecht directs the question to the audience, asking if anyone knew who he was before now. The moment is played beautifully and tragically, for a man who once knew what it felt like to be celebrated at the top of his game.
The play focuses a little on Hecht’s own activism, such as his work in bringing the atrocities of the Holocaust to light, but his efforts are as forgotten as his scripts. With Jenny’s fate spelt out already, the play leaves you slightly sadder than when you went in, all because you didn’t know who these two people were before you got to know them over the course of an hour and forty minutes of theatre.
The play is well-acted, well-staged and demands your attention from start to finish. But it is the dialogue between Jenny and her father that is the real star. It is fitting that the play contains as much snap as its subject’s screenplays themselves.
Reviewed by Laura Stanley
Photo: Henika Thompson