A Conversation with Edith Head

Edinburgh Festival review
Rating (out of 5)
Show info
The Invisible Theatre and Paul Lucas Productions
Paddy Calistro and Susan Claassen (writers), James Blair, Susan Claassen and Ramsay Ure (design)
Susan Claassen (Edith Head)
Running time

"Gowns by Edith Head" was one of the most familiar cinema credits of the 20th century. Edith began as a sketch artist in the 1920s, and worked her way up to become the most celebrated Hollywood costume designer winning eight Oscars (and 35 nominations) during a career that covered 1,100 movies. She was designing up to her death in 1981, just after completing the film, "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid."

For this exemplary one-woman show, co-written and performed by New York actress and director, Susan Claassen, the stage is set with two stunning Head evening gowns and a wall of authentic Oscar statuettes and celebrity photographs. "A Conversation with Edith Head" is exactly that, a Q and A session with Head talking about her career to us, an audience of Hollywood directors, writers and actors.

It's a clever device as Ms Head is able to address and engage with the audience directly. Indeed there are certain movie guests in the crowd who are keen to ask questions which creates a realistic and increasingly witty ambience.

Wearing a neat grey suit, black turtle neck sweater and her trademark black "bangs" and dark glasses, Ms Head begins her talk.  We learn about her favourite movie stars - Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Liz Taylor, Bette Davis and Grace Kelly - who all became close friends. She describes her design work as that of a "magician," with the astute eye to teach anyone how to dress properly to suit their figure. We learn little of her private life, except that she had two husbands, firstly "Charles Head, who gave me his name and little else." 

As the questions become more inquisitive, demanding, even argumentative, Ms Head's pale complexion turns ever so slightly puce, as she defends her views, denies allegations for design work and admits her bitterness about missing out on certain Oscars. She parades her work by pointing out various photographs, testing the audience with a Hollywood Who's Who quiz. This lady comes over as a tough cookie, a woman who made it big in the patriarchal movie world and who never seemed to take no for an answer. 

The background to creating the show is fascinating. Susan Claassen was apparently watching a TV documentary about Edith Head and was shocked. "I literally did a double take. My physical resemblance to Edith Head is uncanny"  She then worked with Paddy Calistro, a leading authority and biographer of the designer. The professionalism behind the tight script, pin-sharp acting and perfect design of this magical Fringe show really shines through: 90 minutes of inspiring, entertaining Hollywood gossip and colourful stories behind the beloved Hollywood star who as "The Dress Doctor" worked so hard to make other people glamorous.  As she wisely commented, "You can have anything you want in life, if you dress for it."

Show times : 3 - 27 August, 1815