The postman always rings twice, Playhouse Theatre, London

Passion and intrigue but realism is lost in the mail
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The Independent Culture

There have been four film versions of James Cain's clammy thriller, including Luchino Visconti's 1943 Ossessione, the negative of which was destroyed by the fascists. Of the four, the most famous are the 1946 Hollywood film noir, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, in which the intensity of the on-screen kissing shocked audiences, and the steamy 1981 version with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, in which the kissing was the least of the screen watchdogs' worries.

There have been four film versions of James Cain's clammy thriller, including Luchino Visconti's 1943 Ossessione, the negative of which was destroyed by the fascists. Of the four, the most famous are the 1946 Hollywood film noir, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, in which the intensity of the on-screen kissing shocked audiences, and the steamy 1981 version with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, in which the kissing was the least of the screen watchdogs' worries.

Lucy Bailey's West Yorkshire Playhouse production transfers to the West End with a cast change to accommodate the latest American star to take the London stage, Val Kilmer.

Kilmer plays depression era drifter Frank Chambers who pitches up at the Twin Oaks diner 20 miles outside Los Angeles on Highway 99. Taking up an offer of work from the proprietor, Nick Papadakis (Joe Alessi), Chambers is soon drawn into a ferocious affair with Nick's wife, Cora (Charlotte Emmerson).

In a delicious turn redolent of the home life of our own dear Macbeths, the pair are soon plotting to off the cuckolded Nick.

Kilmer and Emmerson work perfectly together - even when the production loses its way in the second act. Their addiction to each other, and the wild and nasty sex they share, drives the play forward in the best scenes.

Kilmer, heavier of face than in his A-list heyday, retains his feline grace. Emmerson's volatile Cora thrills with the promise that she could explode at any moment. Django Bates' incidental music builds well from a carefree drifter whistle at the top to shards of discord percussive blues as the nastiness unfolds. Mic Pool racks up the tension with his jump-out-of-your-seat sound design.

Towards the end of act one, however, the strain is beginning to show in Andrew Rattenbury's screen to stage adaptation and the string and glue of murder mystery exposition begins to show.

Bunny Christie's set provides a truly startling climax to the act, but from here on in the tension and, crucially, the realism ebb away.

The hard-won realism of the first half is badly punctured by the sudden appearance of theatrical symbolism in the second. The action descends into courtroom drama, scene changes begin to drag and precious momentum is lost.

In its best moments, however, the piece generates real heat and it does hold on longer than most pot boiler thrillers before it gives up the ghost entirely thanks to its truly desperate depression era characters and strong performances through even the cough and spit parts (Keith Bartlett is particularly compelling as the detective).

"Their love was a flame that destroyed!" screamed the tag line on the 1946 movie poster. And the sexual chemistry of the leads here is no less a conflagration. But for all its promise, sadly this postman doesn't quite deliver.

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