City of Angels, theatre review: Katherine Kelly is hilarious in this miracle of co-ordination

Donmar Warehouse, London

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The Independent Culture

The Donmar hasn't tackled a musical since 2011 but it makes up for lost time in terrific style now with Josie Rourke's dazzling revival of this Cy Coleman/David Zippel tuner: a jazzy, delectably tart take on film noir and Tinseltown hacks that's not been seen in London since its UK premiere twenty years ago.

The received wisdom is that musicals habitually flounder because the book doesn't provide songs with a sturdy enough dramatic context.  In this case, though, the book by Larry (M*A*S*H; Tootsie) Gelbart is so diabolically clever in its ingenious plotting and in its wise-cracking pastiche of Raymond Chandler that you occasionally feel it precludes the need for songs. But Coleman's agile, eclectic score keeps surprising you with numbers that suggest drolly irresistible reasons why these laconic types should want to give voice. 

The show hits on an ace conceit and develops it brilliantly. We're in Hollywood in the late 1940s and Stine (Hadley Fraser), an East Coast novelist, is desperately trying to turn one of his crime thrillers into a screenplay for monstrous movie mogul Buddy Fidler whose rumpled megalomania and phobic reaction to literature (“I'm your biggest fan –  I've read a synopsis of every book you've written”) are amusingly caught by Peter Polycarpou. 

At the same time, we see how Stine's struggles with his integrity are mirrored in his script about Stone (Tam Mutu) his gum-shoe alter-ego, which comes to life in contrasting black-and white, as he types and revises it. “Only the floor kept her legs from going on forever” quips Mutu's hearthrob private eye, with his Burt Lancaster grin,  when the traditional femme fatale client (hilarious Katherine Kelly) sashays in with an offer that embroils him in a parodic film noir scenario involving (among other things) a nubile missing stepdaughter, a loaded codger in an iron lung, and a spiritual adviser whose corpse plays the castanets. 

There's a vivid territorial tussle between black-and-white and technicolour on Robert Jones's high script-stacked set as the “real” and the “reel” world become intertwined and there are several pointed doublings. Rosalie Craig is sizzling as Bobi, the nightclub singer for whom Stone gallantly took the rap, and morally scathing as Stine's betrayed wife, who loathes how Hollywood is corrupting him.  A trusty lovelorn sidekick to the private eye in the film, Rebecca Trehearn is wonderfully wry and undeluded as the writer's lonely mistress. “You Can Always Count On Me”, her comically self-mocking lament at being one of nature's “other women” is one of the highlights of the evening. The suspicion thereby grows that Stine is starting to sell out and tailoring the script not just to suit the mogul's taste but to compensate for his own moral decline. 

The production is a miracle of coordination. Both halvesend with “You're Nothing Without Me” - the author's exhilarating duet with his fictional doppelganger. The first time, it's a stamping display of mutual antagonism (exuberantly choreographed by Stephen Mear). The second time? Well, if Raymond Chandler had ever collaborated with Luigi Pirandello, it would have looked a lot like this.

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