A Conversation with Edith Head

Published Friday 1 August 2008 at 16:55 by Emma Barnett

In one sense she is the "master of self promotion" and in another, she's "the woman who isn't there". It's this diversity of character aptly portrayed by Susan Claassen, that makes A Conversation with Edith Head such lovely watching.

Head, arguably the greatest ever costume designer to the stars, has come to London in the shape of Claassen. In her time, this small, determined power-force, won eight Oscars, had a career spanning 58 years first at Paramount and then Universal, and dressed all the greats, from Mae West to Grace Kelly. She died at the age of 83 in 1981.

It was supposedly after watching a TV biography of Head, Claassen knew she could play her and promptly with Paddy Calistro, co-author of Head's posthumous autobiography, joined forces to write this script

And she was right. Set in 1981 while working on Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, you are welcomed as an audience who has come armed with questions and a burning curiosity about Head's world. Even if you know nothing about her or the stars she clothed, you can just tell from Claassen's high quality of acting, she is capturing Head's essence with her every crafted move. She actually becomes her, a feat helped also by the fact she bears a strong resemblance to Head. The loving way Claassen handles clothes, her biting wit when answering the planted questions from the floor, and even her exaggerations of success, seems uncanny and adds to the charm of this show.

The set is stunning - littered with mannequins, autographed photographs of Hollywood stars and of course, her treasured Oscars.

It is, however, a show with quite limited appeal. You either need to know about Head or really want to know about her. You can't recommended this play to just anyone because it really is like an evening with Head and therefore not something everyone would sign up for.
Mae West once said to Head, "When you find your magic, stick with it". Head certainly found hers, but the realisation that she only ever threw her magic on to others and spent her life in someone else's shadow, is one realisation too many by the end of the show, which Claassen portrays with aplomb.

Co-authors, Claassen and Calistro, do assume a certain audience, but if you fit the bill, you're in for a great evening of old-school glamour and wonderful recollections.
Production information

Studio Space, Leicester Square Theatre, London, July 29-August 31
Paddy Calistro, Susan Claassen
Anthony Field, John C Causebrook, Elizabeth Lomas
Anthony Field Associates Ltd
Cast includes:
Susan Claassen, Christopher Arnold
Running time:
1hr 20mins

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