Musicals don’t come much more ravishing than this sassy 1989 Tinseltown fantasia by Cy Coleman, David Zippel and Larry Gelbart. Dazzlingly directed by Josie Rourke, it blends hard-bitten, noirish dialogue and silver-screen glamour with a big, brassy, sexy score and a whip-smart wit. And with performances to die for from a crack cast led by real-life husband and wife Hadley Fraser and Rosalie Craig, it’s hotter than a smoking pistol.
It’s a show full of double-talk and mirror images, switching between the black-and-white world of a movie thriller and the Technicolor action in the life of the screenwriter who is creating it. Robert Jones’ twin-decked design, cleverly lit by Howard Harrison and given an extra, shimmering dimension by Duncan McLean’s video imagery, divides the stage in two: the real (though often deceptive) and the celluloid (an ever-shifting work-in-progress). Stacks of film fill the lower, monochrome level; on the upper storey are piles of manuscripts, across which hallucinatory images of palm trees, bright sunsets and city lights dance.
Fraser plays Stine, a novelist on the verge of his big break. He’s been asked to adapt his book – a story of skullduggery and seduction with a world-weary gumshoe, Stone, at its centre – for Hollywood. It sounds like a dream ticket, but the interference of the aptly named Buddy Fidler – a meddling, pseudo-friendly, sleazy movie mogul – is threatening to turn it into a creative nightmare. Caught between his ambition and his integrity, Stine begins to drift fancifully between his own problems and those of Stone, his trench-coated, private-dick alter ego (Tam Mutu). An airheaded starlet presents erotic temptation, and turns into a wanton rich-girl runaway in his film script, while Buddy’s gorgeous wife also makes her way into the fiction as a purring femme fatale. Most dangerous of all, his super-smart editor wife Gabby – transformed, in his increasingly fevered imagination, into an ill-fated torch singer, Bobbi – is losing patience with both his writerly and his romantic vacillations.
The choreography by Stephen Mear snaps, crackles and oozes elegance, and with most of the cast gliding between the two narratives, the effect is gloriously, mind-twistingly sophisticated. Fraser’s voice soars and gleams like a pi full of burnished trumpets, while gravelly, rugged Mutu’s, sliding nonchalantly from the corner of his curled lip, is the sound of the murky dive bar, pungent with booze, cigarettes and louche promise. Peter Polycarpou is comically, repulsively reptilian as Buddy, and the women are as lethally gorgeous as the driest of chilled martinis, with Katherine Kelly a stiletto-slim siren, Samantha Barks kittenish as the good girl gone bad, and Rebecca Trehearn as an obliging Girl Friday with a sting in her sweetly sashaying tail. Supreme among them is the flame-haired Craig as Bobbi-Gabby, an exquisite singer and so sharp that it’s hard to believe she’ll ever resign herself to giving Stine his conveniently scripted happy ending. A darkly glittering delight.