Review: City of Angels, Donmar Warehouse

“One Joe who swore, he’s single
Got me sorta crocked, the beast
I woke up only slightly shocked
That I’d defrocked a priest”

I quite often have problems with plays and musicals that are thusly described – “one of the acknowledged greats of twentieth century musical theatre” – especially when I’ve not heard a note of it. I’ve always preferred finding my own route into liking something and so such labels rarely help, the note of hyperbole indeed a little off-putting. So the buzz around Josie Rourke’s production of the Cy Coleman, Larry Gelbart and David Zippel musical City of Angels proved something of a double-edged sword for me.

This was actually my second viewing of the show – I decided to leave writing up a trip to a late preview whilst suffering from a bad cold as I wasn’t sure how constructive I could be whilst feeling so rough. But even on second viewing, the show struck as a peculiar beast indeed. A dip into the world of film noir with a play-within-a-play structure, City of Angels has quite a cold heart and a clinical feel to it as a novelist tries to make it big in Hollywood with his story of a hard-boiled detective working on a big case.

It’s not to take anything from a hugely exciting cast. Hadley Fraser and Tam Mutu make a sterling pair of leading men as creator and creation respectively and the show’s undoubted highlight comes in their Act One-closing duet ‘You’re Nothing Without Me’ which sees their two worlds – real and fictional; colour and black and white – collide in most entertaining fashion. But it is a rare respite from otherwise from the drudge through Gelbart’s frankly uninspired book which does little to engender any real interest in character over mood.

So Rosalie Craig and Rebecca Trehearn both get to play two variations on noirish femmes (getting some good songs in the process – With Every Breath I Take’ and ‘You Can Count On Me’) but it is never as if we really get truly invested in the fates of the characters on either level of Robert Jones’ inventive set design. Too little variation in both the jazz-inspired score and the pulp fiction-aping book means that there’s a reputation still to be earned here on my account. And don’t even get me started on the somewhat dodgy racial politics of making the only black cast members a backing quartet.

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