After a season of diverse and provocative plays, the Donmar Warehouse this week opened its Christmas show, the little known 1989 musical City of Angels. There’s a reason the show hasn’t been seen in London since its West End debut – it’s by no means a classic: its plot is silly and contrived, and many of the songs rather forgettable. But it’s also engaging, seductive and, above all, entertaining. The set is stunning, a highly detailed mess of manuscript pages and cigarette smoke, beautifully matched by Duncan McLean’s video projections, and the show slips along seamlessly, every inch the film noir thriller.
The casting is perfect: the Donmar’s reputation and limited capacity mean the show is free from the usual pressures of new West End musicals, so there are no big names from TV or film. Instead, we have a cast led by the wonderful Hadley Fraser, known for turns in Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera but most recently seen on this stage as the brutal Aufidius in Rourke’s Coriolanus. He couldn’t be more different here, playing the disillusioned, cardigan-sporting Stine, a novelist trying to adapt his crime novel for the screen. His every move is overseen – and rewritten – by Pete Polycarpou’s slimy Hollywood producer, whilst his long-suffering wife (a stunning Rosalie Craig) loses patience with his compulsive infidelity. So Stine throws himself into the slick, stylised world of his creation, the rugged, charismatic private investigator Stone.
The plot flicks between the two worlds, following both Stone’s investigation into a young heiress’s disappearance and Stine’s struggle to keep control over his story. It can get a little confusing and at times it begins to feel a bit tiring and repetitive, bouncing from location to location, real world to fiction, but these are brief moments, forgotten by the next jazz-infused number. In lesser hands, the show might not hold together, but Rourke has orchestrated every second of it, and the cast make it seem almost effortless. Tam Mutu is a suitably strong-jawed, snarling detective; Samantha Barks a perfect Marilyn Monroe-esque pin-up; whilst Rebecca Trehearn is equally compelling as both Stone’s loyal assistant and Stine’s mistress, her number ‘You Can Always Count On Me’ earning easily the biggest applause of the evening. But, as Stine’s frustrations with the relentless Hollywood machine and his own inability to stay faithful come to a head, we get arguably the best scene of the show, as creator and creation battle for dominance in the barn-storming Act 1 finale ‘You’re Nothing Without Me’. It’s a fantastic moment which makes the most of the sleek video design and the vocal talents of Mutu and Fraser, and this alone is enough to make the show worth seeing.
Whilst its not up there with the great 20th century musicals, Rourke’s take on City of Angels is a slick, classy affair packed with razor-sharp dialogue and stunning performances, a perfect evening of theatre for the Christmas period.
City of Angels is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 7 February 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Donmar Warehouse website.