Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 30 December 2014

City of Angels

Donmar Warehouse ⋄ 5th December 2014 – 7th February 2015

Where noir came from.

Tim Bano

This is noir, it’s where noir came from. It’s the shadow of a fedora behind a PI’s frosted glass door, it’s one-liners as dry as a well-made Martini, it’s where eroticism meets brutality, backstreets meet high society, pulp fiction becomes literary art. It’s the contradictions of LA in the forties, the City of Angels, melded together and presented on stage. In a musical. 

Stine (Hadley Fraser) is a novelist. His hard-boiled PI novel, City Of Angels, tells the story of Detective Stone, hired by socialite seductress Alaura to investigate the disappearance of her daughter. Scenes from the novel intertwine on stage with scenes from the writer’s own life: his tussles with producer/director Buddy Fidler and the inevitable cuts he has to make in order to turn City Of Angels into a blockbuster film. 

The musical itself is clever, but Josie Rourke’s production makes it even more so: she uses the dual narrative (Stine’s story versus Stone’s) to poke at the boundaries between literature, film and theatre.

Stine sits at his typewriter on a mezzanine level; the letters he types are projected onto the stage and break apart into different shapes, twisting into outlines of the characters’ bodies as a voiceover introduces them. When Stine edits his text, deleting a sentence or two, the words are scrubbed out and the actors jerk backwards as if rewinding. It’s reinforcing the transition from page to screen, the paradox that you can gain so much from a visual and lose so much depth and detail in pandering to a studio’s reductive wishes.

Doubling of parts (Rebbecca Trehearn plays both Donna, Buddy’s secretary, and Oolie, Detective Stone’s assistant) hints at the “real life” inspirations Stine has drawn for his characters. But both narratives – Stine and Stone, writer and written – are false. They’re both the product of Larry Gelbart (book), David Zippel (lyrics) and Cy Coleman (music). And the distance between them eventually breaks down as Stone invades the Stine narrative; the writer and his protagonist battle it out with each other in the song “You’re Nothing Without Me”. 

The theatre becomes a mediating space that allows for Rourke, as well as Coleman/Gelbart/Zippel, to explore the gap between books and films. Both are acceptable on a stage: word and motion. Theatre is still, mostly, fundamentally attached to a text or an author in a way that film isn’t. But theatre has to find a way to put that author’s words into live action, into motion. 

Of course, there’s Chandler and Hammett in here. The dialogue is bursting with wit (“only the floor kept her legs from going on forever”) but Coleman uses the jazz score to capture the seediness and lust and romance that make up LA in the forties. It spills out not only from sax melodies with blue notes that could drive anyone to tears (or to sleep with an heiress), but also from the squeaky muted trumpets, the brass that farts out its clusters of dissonant chords. There are songs to croon in best Sinatran style (“I’m in a sentimental mood…”) and crunchy bits of four part scat that are sung with admirable precision by the Angel City Four. It’s not short of cinematic grandeur, either: Alaura’s theme plays out in a broad Rachmaninovian piano melody, on top of which layers of strings pile up. 

Piling up, too, are the stacks of paper that form the backdrop of the mezzanine level. Stine sits up there writing his screenplay, while action plays out on the stage below. Towering sheaves loom over the stage, threatening to topple onto it and onto us. Robert Jones’ design is stunning through and through. All the scenes from Detective Stone’s narrative are entirely black and white – white light illumines the monochrome costumes. This blooms into warmth and colour when Stine’s scenes are happening. Even the programme cover is half colour/half black and white.

City Of Angels is self consciously cinematic – a little mention of deMille, the use of voiceover, the black and white bits – and it’s cleverly literary too (Faulkner gets a namecheck and Rourke adds the projected letters). The conversion of book into screenplay throws up the bitter dispute between the purity of the single voice of a novel and the multitude of people involved in making a film, as well as cinema’s dumbed-down appeal to a broader audience. But only in a theatre can something as simple as the contrast between monochrome and colour represent everything the musical is about. You can only do that on stage. 

It all comes down to a wobbly lamp. Tam Mutu, playing Detective Stone, knocks against one and it threatens to fall off its table. It seems accidental, unscripted. Then later Jimmy (Tim Walton) also stumbles into a prop, but this time it’s in the stage directions. One wobble accidental, the other scripted. This becomes about looking at the process of making a film – about demystifying the perfection of the end result. When Jimmy the character knocks the lamp, the director can cut and reshoot the scene. When Mutu the actor knocks it in front of us, the live audience, he has to just ignore it. Theatre can’t paint over its accidents and errors: the musical uses the stage to draw attention to the paint strokes on the movie set and the cracks in the make up. 

This production is big, beautiful and clever. There’s barely a wavering note from the cast as they sing to Coleman’s authentic jazz score. Under Rourke’s direction, City Of Angels is an evocation of not only the hard-boiled genre, but also of Hollywood’s golden era.


Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

City of Angels Show Info

Directed by Josie Rourke

Written by Larry Gelbart

Cast includes Rosalie Craig, Peter Polycarpou, Tam Mutu, Hadley Fraser, Samantha Barks, Rebecca Trehearn, Katherine Kelly

Original Music Cy Coleman (lyrics by David Zippel)



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