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Cecil Beaton's Diaries

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 6, 2023

Richard Stirling
Photo by Carol Rosegg
What a grouch! That's likely to be the lasting impression you will have about Cecil Beaton (or, excuse me, "Sir Cecil Beaton," if you please), the fashion and portrait photographer, costume and set designer, and social climbing snob whose curmudgeonly personality is on full display in Cecil Beaton's Diaries, a presentation of Evergreen Theatrical Productions as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters.

If you are even slightly familiar with Beaton, who passed away in 1980, it is likely you will recall his Oscar-winning high fashion designs for the films of Gigi and, especially, for My Fair Lady. Hard to forget the stunning black-and-white outfit and iconic mile-high hat worn by Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle at the Ascot races. And if that is the image of Beaton you wish to retain, you might want to stay away from Cecil Beaton's Diaries, the 75-minute show adapted from Beaton's actual diaries by its solo performer Richard Stirling.

Certainly, there are celebrities who enjoy dishing the dirt about others with whom they have worked, but most often it's with an impish twinkle in their eye. No harm, no foul. But if there is a twinkle in Beaton's eye, it is probably the result of a cataract. Stirling as Beaton, crisply dressed in a bespoke beige suit, blue shirt, and pink tie, is not there to regale us with naughty tales of the famous and high-born in his Rolodex or whom he has photographed with his always-available Rolleiflex camera. Oh, he drops names with the best of them, but when he drops names, it is to smash them on the ground and crush them under foot.

Katharine Hepburn, whom Beaton dressed for the musical Coco, is "the egomaniac of all time, a freckled, mottled, wizened piece of decaying matter." Then there are Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, whom he photographed for Vogue magazine. Burton, he says, is "butch and coarse as only a Welshman can be," and Taylor's "breasts came out of her dress like those of a peasant woman suckling her young in Peru." Me-ouch! That's just a couple of examples; there are plenty more where these come from. Beaton, defensive and thin-skinned as can be, doesn't just hold grudges; he rears and nurtures them as if they were his beloved children.

There is, fortunately, more to the show than just these vicious rants, including interludes about Beaton's personal life and loves, his infatuation (obsession?) with Greta Garbo (whose voice he tries awkwardly to imitate), and his career successes. If you are able to tune out some of the diatribes, you might enjoy watching the slide show being projected behind Stirling, of Beaton's portraits (the British royals feature prominently) and costume designs.

Beneath all of the defensive/offensive outrage with which Beaton faces the world, it is clear there is a lot of pain and a deep sense of insecurity that has shaped his life, even if the details are scarce. Stirling does a superlative job of milking Beaton's diaries for all of their venom, even if the man being portrayed is someone you might not wish to sit down with for a spot of tea without making sure nothing extra has been added to your cup.

Cecil Beaton's Diaries
Through May 21, 2023
Evergreen Theatrical Productions Ltd.
59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th Street
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