Heart-throb Douglas Booth proves he is more than just a pretty face.
Astonishingly still working after lately celebrating her 93rd birthday, Dame Angela Lansbury attributes the longevity of her career to her plainness in youth. It is was typically self-deprecating remark from this great survivor, but maybe she has a point. She explained that the trouble with conspicuous beauty in her profession is it raises the stakes in a way that is manifestly unfair. If you fail, you fail spectacularly, early and often irrecoverably, and then, of course, if beauty is your principal claim to fame, there’s the problem of what to do when it starts to fade.
Crashing and burning is an issue for attractive men as well as women, and yet Douglas Booth – elevated to heart-throb status when he appeared seven years ago in the television adaptation of Great Expectations – is now commendably trying to earn respect as well as adoration by doing his time treading the boards. His has been a career conducted in reverse: first the stardom, then the hard slog on the stage.
He made a worthy West End debut last year in Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate at the Trafalgar Studios, and now, at the grand old age of 26, he is back again on one of the theatre’s more intimate stages pushing himself still further in Ken Urban’s A Guide for the Homesick. It kicks off in a hotel room in Amsterdam where Booth – playing an unshaven, preppy, American boy named Jeremy – is knocking back a few beers and making small talk with a man of colour named Teddy (Clifford Samuel). You wonder on what basis they are in the room together, and then Teddy makes a pass at Jeremy and he recoils.
The two anguished souls go on to establish an uneasy rapport and soon it emerges that they are both haunted by their past. Jeremy worked as a nurse in Kampala, trying to do some good, but got involved in a dangerous affair with a married local man – played by Samuel, with an African accent that just occasionally slips – whom he eventually deserts when he needs him most. Teddy has, meanwhile, been involved in a relationship with a guy named Ed (Booth, again) who is a manic depressive with a habit of soliloquising about lonely whales and whom again he failed at the worst possible moment.
The stage is not much bigger than a phone box, but the action shifts convincingly between continents and past and present under the deft direction of Jonathan O’Boyle. It’s an odd, strange, haunting piece that is less about sexuality than loneliness and the quiet desperation of the human condition. Samuel is at his best as the predatory Teddy seeking to deaden his sense of guilt in random hook-ups and Booth, for his part, shines in two peculiarly challenging roles that are all about shades of grey, rather than blacks and whites. There is something of James Dean in this actor: he does torment very well and very magnetically. He also still draws the audience’s eyes to him, and, happily and unusually when an actor is this good-looking, he does not disappoint.
A Guide for the Homesick will be at Trafalgar Studios, London, until November 24.