THE BLACK DAHLIA
Northcott Theatre, Exeter/touring
Opened 2 November, 1998

James Ellroy is increasingly hailed as the greatest living writer of noir thrillers, especially after the film adaptation which led to this production being billed as "by the author of L.A. Confidential". On the evidence of this evening a dramatisation of Ellroy's novel based loosely on a true unsolved crime from Los Angeles in 1946 the term "noir" is used far from lightly.

Mike Alfreds's production for Method & Madness does not credit a stage adaptor, but pieces as tight and pacy as this do not emerge spontaneously. Someone presumably Alfreds himself has shaped matters quite deliberately so that, even at three hours, things seldom seem to move at less than a gallop. Indeed, if I had not at least begun to read the novel beforehand, I suspect I would have been thoroughly at sea during the first 20 minutes.

But, almost by definition, transparency is not one of the principal characteristics of noir. Think of the momentum of bewilderment generated in The Big Sleep; think of the verbal and narrative swiftness of any of Howard Hawks's finest films this is the tone of The Black Dahlia. Boxer-turned-police detective Bucky Bleichert is anything but infallible; in fact, at one point or another he is played for a patsy by his partner, his partner's beloved (later Bleichert's own wife), every member of his mistress's family and several cop collagues. This is the classic noir technique of allowing a protagonist only a partial understanding, with each successive discovery serving only to reveal how ensnared he is in a web of evil and deceit. Webs do not come stickier than this tangle of police corruption, murder, blackmail, lesbian pornography, evisceration and departmental politicking. Hints of later noirs such as Chinatown, The Two Jakes and even Seven also pop up.

Eliot Giuralarocca may be slightly too ready to smile in the early stages, creating a misleading impression of Bleichert as easy-going, but frankly he has all too little to smile about as the play progresses. Louise Bush as his schizophrenic (in the proper sense of the term) mistress escalates gradually to the truly unsettling; Jane Armfield plays a collection of brash, lippy broads, and in one of his several roles Jim Pyke essays quite a creditable John Cazale impersonation. Even after everything is apparently explained, matters remain more than a little incomprehensible, and Alfreds and his company of 10 depict events with a degree of immersion which actually leaves one feeling genuinely dirtied by having witnessed or even contemplated them; in terms of the play's genre, these remarks both constitute high praise.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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