Shabba-dabba-doo-wop! What a glorious evening. Grownup, dryly hilarious, sublimely jazzy. Josie Rourke’s Donmar walks away with the palm for the season’s top show. Or perhaps sashays away, tossing platinum curls and white mink. Or gumshoes down the mean streets of Seven Dials on the trail of dodgy dames, tipping its hat-brim bitterly over its eyes…
For this is the dark 1940’s glamour of Raymond Chandler and Spillane, of private ‘tecs with complicated histories, and blondes who turn up in their grimy offices and are clearly “a handful – maybe two if you played your cards right”. Better, we are watching that literary world intersecting disastrously with Hollywood as the novelist Stine (Hadley Fraser) sees his creation Stone (Tam Mutu) and assorted tricky blondes, pinstriped heavies and bitter Latino rivals traduced into a formulaic film-noir. The appropriately named studio boss Buddy Fidler (Peter Polycarpou, manically perfect). knows that movies have different priorities “They’re light and dark, they’re faces ten feet high..I’ve been through de Mille, I know!”. Rosalie Craig, smart as a whip, plays Stine’s wife, editor and literary conscience: her number “It needs work” probably had every writer (and adulterer) in the audience wincing.
Larry Gelbart’s ironic story of artistic differences meshes perfectly with Cy Coleman’s trad jazz score (under Gareth Valentine). Rebecca Trehearn, as both Buddy’s real assistant and the fictional detective’s secretary, knocks the roof off with the sour elegant wit of “You can always count on me” , and Stine and Stone’s ferocious duets are breathtaking. Such big numbers could be showstopping, but with David Zippel’s lyrics are always intelligent, part of the story. And you have to love a man who rhymes “If you’re not celibate, we could raise hell a bit”.
It’s a handful to stage, as the two plots are kept distinct – real life in garish technicolour and the noir plot in monochrome – while sharing the same stage, mirroring and interfering with one another. There’s some brilliant jerky backwards-work from the characters in the plot when the author, typing overhead, has to cross out dialogue. But Rourke powers through it with panache, thanks to Robert Jones’ brilliant two-tier design, pinpoint lighting work from Howard Harrison, and some ferocious choreography from Stephen Mear . The backdrop is an immense wall of scripts and film canisters on which typed words flit around and witty visual shocks occur. When Hadley Fraser leaps onto an invisible box it is lit -at the second he lands – to become a pile of paper,. When he and his creation fight – Tam Mutu radiating irresistible Clooneyesque glamour as the imaginary detective – it is spectacular. The costumes and manner are fabulously parodic too: when the foxy Mallory (Samantha Barks) leaps on the hero with a Hitchcock-blonde toss of the hair, there are real dark roots on the platinum. It’s details like that you worship.
And the wisecracks! Gelbart, writing in the 80s, lovingly reproduces the tone and rhythm of a Chandler. “My husband” smoulders Katherine Kelly as the wicked blonde, “is a good deal older than me”. “How good a deal?” asks Stone, deadpan. Must remember to use that one. The millionaire husband is in an iron lung: a retro device wheeled on and off to general glee, getting its best moment right at the end. And I haven’t even mentioned the the wicked stab at Hollywood’s social censorship. Or the castanet-playing corpse.
Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 15 Feb.
Supported: Barclays /H & S Williams Foundation for the ARts / Ray Bar-Salisbury