A witty and glorious celebration of 1940s film noir is provided by Josie Rourke’s engrossing revival of the 1989 musical City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse).
The story contains all the elements you expect to find in a classic film of this genre – a hard-boiled Los Angeles private eye, a female femme fatale, a missing girl and a murder or two.
At the heart of the show is Stine, an East Coast novelist who gets an offer he can’t refuse – a chance to get his fictional gumshoe Stone on the silver screen. So he heads to Hollywood, where he finds where he finds himself at the mercy of the sheer crassness of the film industry embodied by the figure of the vulgar mogul Buddy Fiddler. Soon life and fiction are blurring into one another as Stine and Stone (the fictional private eye) – creator and creation – argue about the film plot.
As a musical – Cy Coleman’s effervescent jazzy score, with lyrics by David Zippel perfectly captures the mood and the atmosphere of the piece – it is immense fun but also a huge challenge to stage, as the “real” and “reel” plots run concurrently, one in colour, one in black and white. Adapted from the book by Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H, Tootsie) the show cleverly show Stine getting chewed up by the Hollywood system , while his downfall is played out in the movie, Gelbart asks how do we keep our identity and integrity and manage to tell stories in such difficult circumstances? As the megalomaniac Hollywood producer puts it “Everyone’s in a movie. Sometimes we just turn the camera on.”
Rourke keeps the interplay between the two stories moving at a brisk pace and with a rich vein of humour. Encountering a seductive blonde, Stone pithily remarks in true Raymond Chandler fashion: “Only the floor kept her legs from going on forever.” There is also a very funny exchange between Stone and his fictional alter ego Stine, which is quite unforgettable.
This may not be a perfect show but its staging is inspired. Robert Jones’s design is backed by a huge pile of manuscripts which suggest the travails of the lone writer.
Director Josie Rourke (this is her first musical) elicits excellent performances from her strong cast, who apart from Stone and Stine play dual roles that comment and reflect on each other. Hadley Fraser’s harassed Stine is well matched by Tam Mutu’s wry Bogartean Stone.
Rosalie Craig slips seamlessly into the roles of writer’s wife and gumshoe girl as do Katherine Kelly as shooting star and blazing siren and Samantha Barks as aspiring starlet and missing bad girl. Further commendations go to Peter Pollycarpou who is explosively funny as the egomaniac producer and Rebecca Trehearn as the secretary to the private eye in the movie and assistant to the film producer in “real” life and who sings the best number in the show You Can Always Count on Me with great élan.
In short then, this is an exhilarating show which provides a truly rewarding evening in the theatre.
City of Angels
Runs at the Donmar Warehouse until Saturday 7 February 2015.
Box office: 0844 871 7624Last modified: April 7, 2021