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Stage Beauty (2004)

She was the first of her kind. He was the last of his.

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 110 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

The theatre-goers of the 17th Century loved a good ladyboy. They just couldn’t get enough of them. In fact, on-stage cross-dressing was so popular back then that it was actually the law in Britain that only men could play women in public productions. It’s a topsy-turvy world, and no mistaking.

It was against this background of legally-enforced men-in-tights that Ned Kynaston became one of the most revered thesps of the era. He was the Lily Savage or RuPaul of his day, except that he did serious stuff like Shakespeare, and could count Samuel Pepys as a fan to boot. But what happened when King Charles II got bored of all these trannies hugging the limelight and decided to let the girlies have a go? The country’s top stars – including poor old Ned – found themselves out of work, that’s what.

This ambitious project by ‘Iris’ director Richard Eyre attempts to tell that very tale, pitching Billy Crudup as the bisexual Kynaston and Claire Danes as Maria, the young upstart who’s after both his heart and his job.

It’s an interesting enough story, but it’s also one that Eyre and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher (who also wrote the original play) seem to struggle to squeeze into what you’d think is an ample 110 minute running time. The liberally-sprinkled instances of comic relief work well (particularly from Rupert Everett, who’s scenes as the King are amongst the most entertaining), but I had the constant nagging feeling that here was a period of English stage history not quite being done justice. The casting of Danes and Crudup is also irksome, not only because they’re both American and make no real effort to hide their accents, but because Crudup’s facial features don’t really fit the role (his jawline and profile are far too masculine to pass as a man who was supposedly regarded by all and sundry as the most “beautiful” in the industry).

But, for all its faults, ‘Stage Beauty’ is a professionally-made piece of work (Robert De Niro is one of the producers, in case anyone’s interested), and I never found it less than watchable. It’s just a pity it lacks the spark, sense of significance and right choice of lead players to make any more of an impact.

It's Got: Powdered wigs, beauty spots, and a forced flashing of the flesh from Ms Danes.

It Needs: A cameo appearance from Elton John, surely! Some of those costumes would suit him right down to the ground.


This passable costume drama is mainly mouth and – quite literally – no trousers.