THEATRE / The sweet, sweet sound of success

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AS Tom Stoppard once said, the best stroke of luck any writer can have is to find that two plays will go into one. So it was for the authors of City of Angels: a pastiche film noir incorporating the drama of how the film came to be made. On one side, a private eye pursuing his quarry through a jungle of luxuriant Californian corruption; on the other, a screenwriter trapped in the equally labyrinthine coils of studio intrigue. One risking his life for justice; the other for fame and pots of dough.

As soon as you get the idea (which has been drifting over from Broadway for the past three years), you start inventing the show for yourself - which still leaves you unprepared for Michael Blakemore's wonderfully co-ordinated production. Larry Gelbart's book would make an excellent piece in its own right, but music and lyrics emerge as equal partners, with Cy Coleman and David Zippel writing at the height of their powers in a brilliant evocation of 1940s Broadway and Hollywood. The irony, in a piece proclaiming the supremacy of the solitary artist, is its triumphant vindication of the collective method.

Sheer ingenuity - of rhymes, visual cross-reference (in Robin Wagner's designs), and plotting (the main thriller characters all have studio counterparts) - is what makes you sit up: from the opening sight of Stone (the gumshoe) receiving a Chandleresque client in his monochrome office, only to replay the scene in fast reverse as Stine (the writer) arrives in colour, xxxing it out on his typewriter. Come the script conference and Stine changes from omnipotent creator to defenceless hack as the reptilian producer, Buddy, dismembers his brainchild, scattering new-minted Goldwynisms and genial insults ('the characters leap off the page,' he says, tearing a page out to prove it). The two sets are then shunted together for a man-eating duet ('What You Don't Know About Women') between Stone's secretary and Stine's wife, mirroring each other's actions down to the tying of scarves and door-slamming false exits.

Even at this early point, the show's governing idea is already implicit. One woman exists only inside Stine's head, the other in his life, but fictional insight is of no help in keeping his marriage intact. Characters, in other words, are cleverer than their authors; an argument that supplies Gelbart with his climax when Stone rebels against the latest of a series of gutless rewrites and takes over the typewriter himself ('I'm your private dick-tator'), routing the vampire producer and awarding his creator a Hollywood happy ending.

By which time life has also been taken over by fairy tale. As Stine puts it: 'Time I got back to the reality of fiction.' Either way, one heartening thing about the show is that it takes fiction seriously. It is not a camp joke about style. The two plots couple pastiche with straight suspense narrative which becomes electrifying when their threads intertwine. Here is Stine writhing through another script conference while his hero is being tied up for slaughter by a pair of hoodlums; and it is even money whether they will polish him off before the producer gets the knife in. Innumerable small touches work the same trick: accusations by Stone's wife become recycled into his script; a close harmony group are seen recording a sickly ballad, which grinds to its end on the gramophone in Buddy's quilted bedroom.

That number (a hilariously expert showpiece for the resident vocal quartet), together with Coleman's excursions into Latino rhythms, the jazz waltz, torch song, sex-duel duets (with tennis rackets), and knife-chord film atmospherics, accompany the book with equal wit and loving recall for the past. But if one thing defines the sound of this show it is the piling up of wailing brass discords over an ominous percussion figure a la Elmer Bernstein; as a persistent reminder that there is nothing dated about the sweet smell of success. Otherwise, some fine ample voices; a brain-to-brain Stine-Stone partnership between Martin Smith and Roger Allam; and Henry Goodman's transformation of the oily Buddy into an monster on the Jonsonian scale.

In Macbeth, Alan Howard returns to the classical repertory, vocal technique unimpaired by absence. There is no more thrilling sound on the English stage. The sardonic croak, the lyrical caress, the one-man brass section, the whinnying cry of horror (a new sound to me) are all there; delivered in sustained- tone rhythms that build to climaxes giving equal weight to every word in the line. What is missing is the character. Howard arrives as a man already possessed by darkness; it seems he would have committed the murder anyway, and I have seldom seen so superfluous a partner as Anastasia Hille's sex-kitten Lady Macbeth. Once past the crime, he sheds the sense of foreboding and you expect a hardened new man to emerge. But no such development takes place, and the performance dwindles into rhetorical variations with undue reliance on crescendo speeches.

Richard Eyre's production leaves you uncertain whether some of the play's events are actually taking place. It is set, too neatly, by Bob Crowley in a series of concentric circles: perimeter battlements and a centrally positioned round table encircled by a supernatural ring of fire (not working too well on Thursday). Typically, Macbeth lays his weary head on the table after the banquet, up comes the ring of fire, and he dreams the cauldron scene with Macduff, Lady Macbeth, and Malcolm as the apparitions. Eyre might defend this as one of the hero's 'terrible dreams'; but it seems to me damagingly to lower the stakes in a tragedy that locates crime and evil in the real world, rather than in diseased fantasy. The Porter's scene, with Harry Towb trudging miles of stony corridors, is well staged.

A brief recommendation for Wendy MacLeod's Guignol comedy, The House of Yes, in which a trusting girl visits her fiance's family, for whom the clock stopped with the Kennedy assassination. Not only do they know what they were doing at the time; they want to do it again. Five spot-on performances, led by Deirdre Harrison as a super-articulate incestuous psychopath.

'City of Angels': Prince of Wales (071-839 5972). 'Macbeth': Olivier (071-928 2252). 'The House of Yes': Gate (071-229 0706).

(Photograph omitted)