Theatre: Surfing the moral sewer

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The Independent Culture

AS DOROTHY Parker allegedly quipped: "Hollywood will suck you when nobody else will." And she didn't mean it as a compliment. But the remark, quoted in The Black Dahlia, seems a touch flattering to the moral sewer we observe late Forties Tinseltown and Los Angeles to have been.

Directed by Mark Alfreds, this Method and Madness production is a highly dextrous and involving stage adaptation of James Ellroy's testosterone- charged latrine-trawl of an LAPD novel. As you watch it, though, you can't help wondering why the movies didn't get here first.

The book is considerably more filmic than Ellroy's LA Confidential which was a huge screen hit. After all, what could be more photogenic or dryly self-referential than the sequence in which, while the HOLLYWOODLAND sign on Mt Lee is being lopped of its final syllable, the demolition work in the area uncovers the stomach-turning shack where beautiful Betty Short was tortured, drained of blood and cut in half?

Based on a true, unsolved case, the murder becomes the obsession of Officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert. But what gives the story its peculiarly ferocious intensity is the author's personal investment in it. Ellroy's own mother was strangled and dumped in some bushes in a sleazy LA locality and, accordingly, The Black Dahlia is published with the unsettling dedication: "Mother: 20-nine years Later, This Validiction in Blood."

Alfreds and his crack ensemble create a tremendous sense of the drivenness with which Eliot Giuralarocca's nerved-up Bucky conducts his inquiries. Peter McKintosh's resourceful set places the action in a permanent locker room surround, surmounted by a Hollywood billboard that lights up like some electronic advent calendar with whatever symbols (Picasso paintings, stuffed dogs, photographs of Betty etc.) are needed for a scene.

Moving at the speed of light, or, anyway, of a lighting switch from, say, a lesbian bar to a Tijuana cell to a red-neon bathed sleazy motel room, the production makes no concessions to the slow-witted.

The start, for example, is theatrically thrilling - a boxing match which keeps being freeze-framed for dramatised recapitulations of what led up to it - and is a long sequence that really shows off the razor sharp reflexes and co-ordination of this company.

But I'm not sure how intelligible, in basic plot terms, it would be to anyone who has not read the book. Themes familiar from LA Confidential - the corruption of cops, their screwed-up sex lives, their behaviour unprofessionally dictated by their own family history - recur here, with many cynical twists.

Theatre's tendency towards non-naturalism enables Alfreds to depict the motel room as a psychic diagram of Bucky's perverse compulsion to conflate bed mates with the dead Betty. The set's walls of lockers are used, with versatile artistic flair, to emblematise the various disclosures, as when they magically open like a warped Aladdin's cave to reveal the murderers many jars of pickled human remains.

Two old ladies walked out towards the end of the performance during a graphic description of the killing. Odd, because they had survived quite a bit by that stage, including talk of a cop vengefully blinding prostitutes by rubbing his syphilitic penis in their eyes. Me, I was glued to my seat.

To 21 Nov, then touring. Box office: 01332 363275