I was in the critical minority in not being especially impressed by director Lucy Bailey's stage production of Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll (which I saw some five years ago in Birmingham before its subsequent transfer to the National Theatre). The same team's presentation of James M Cain's classic noir novel and screenplay The Postman Always Rings Twice is more successful, I think, in taking a similar design-led strategy towards building its atmosphere of passionate crime and stifling lawlessness.
Having said that, I'm getting fed up with stage designs which suggest a filmic element by providing a CinemaScope-shaped box in which most of the action is played out. This is the umpteenth such set I've seen this year. At least Bunny Christie also provides playing space above and in front of this area, and indeed shows both wit and imagistic power when, at the climax of the first half, a tumbling car "breaks the frame" by collapsing through the ceiling and hanging half-down into the main space. Just as cleverly, the car's headlamps take the place of the traditional bare lightbulb in the first scene after the interval, set in a police interrogation room.
Cain's greatest noirs – this and Double Indemnity – are the very quintessence of the genre: sex, sweat, crimes that don't go smoothly, justice likewise, passion supplanted by panicked suspicion. In this case, the protagonists are drifter Frank Chambers and unhappy roadhouse wife Cora Papadakis, the victim Cora's husband Nick. As Frank, the always formidable Patrick O'Kane stands comparison with John Garfield in the classic film version, which is praise indeed. I'm afraid, though, that I'm as unconvinced by Charlotte Emmerson's Cora as I was by her Baby Doll: she has all the right sultriness of mood and movement, but visually she simply isn't the kind of classical siren to make plausible the unsavoury DA's remark to the effect "I'd rape her myself". It's a testimony to her performance that it largely, though not entirely, creates the illusion of such natural magnetism. Malcolm Rennie as the DA and Joseph Alessi doubling as the ill-fated Nick and a devious, chalkstriped defence counsel provide sterling support in a production that both packs a visual punch and makes you feel authentic grime under your fingernails.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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