Playhouse Theatre, London WC2
Opened 7 June, 2005

The Val Kilmer making his West End stage début is no longer the brooding, cherub-faced sex-puppy of movies like Top Gun, The Doors and Batman Forever.  Now aged 45, heís stockier, more solid of body and face, almost bullet-headed.  Itís a look that works for the figure of Frank Chambers, a drifter enticed into murder, in this stage adaptation of James M Cainís classic noir novel which has been filmed three times.

When Frank fetches up at the Twin Oaks roadhouse, he and the sultry Cora kill her husband Nick in a crime of passion.  But, as in all classic noirs, itís the getting away with it, or not, that fuels the real drama in the second act.  Police interrogations, trial scenes, conspiracies, blackmail and even Frank and Coraís growing mistrust of each other ensure that things come to the most agreeably unhappy conclusion.

Lucy Baileyís production premièred last autumn at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. I quite liked it then; but rather than improving on it for the West End, this version feels drearier.  Itís deliberately designed to look and feel as hot and dusty as 1930s southern California; a mist onstage resembles clouds of dust, the set and costumes are all in various shades of drab.  This communicates itself to the action.

Charlotte Emmerson was praised a few years ago in the title role of Baileyís adaptation of Tennessee Williamsí Baby Doll. However, neither there nor here as Cora has she struck me as a siren who could entice men to violent excess.  The sex scenes between her and Kilmer are rough, unerotic, desperate, to fit the atmosphere. But, as also with the violence, thereís no dramatic charge.  It shambles along like Kilmerís Frank.

Shamefully, too, almost no thought has gone into tweaking the set design or re-blocking the action to take account of this venueís different sightlines.  When you have a crucial courtroom scene where several dozen people sitting on the left of the theatre canít actually spot your protagonist, and a later bit of violence they canít see at all, you really ought to realise it needs work.  Itís hardly rocket science, people!

The design is in some ways beautifully clever (having a crashed car break through the ceiling of the split-level set), but also annoying, with another CinemaScope-shaped box set to suggest the storyís cinematic associations.  Even one night after its press opening, the audience was worryingly thin.  There are a lot of big screen names on London stages at present; Iím not sure Kilmer will be among them very long.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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