City of Angels is a sexy, cool but satirical musical on the film industry and the stylised film noir movie genre. However though the visuals are sumptuous, I struggled to get really swept up by this show.
The story is a simple one but it’s very cleverly constructed. Stine (Hadley Fraser) is a writer struggling to complete his screenplay for Hollywood mogul Buddy Fidler (Peter Ploycarpou). And as he writes, his characters come alive on stage, speaking the lines as he writes (and rewrites) them.
In Stine’s story, we are plunged into a world of beautiful, ambitious femme fatales, palatial Hollywood estates and shady Private Investigators. Mallory Kinsley (Samantha Barks), daughter of frail but filthy rich Luther Kingsley (Mark Penfold) has gone missing. So Kingsley’s sexy, glamorous second wife Alaura (Katherine Kelly) hires no-good PI Stone (Tam Matu) to find her.
Of course it’s all very shady and all very dark and glamorous, but the more writer Stine loses himself in his writing, the more he pushes away his wife, Gabby (a stunning performance from the ridiculously talented Rosalie Craig). So what will he choose – his wife or movie riches?
The overlapping of Stone’s fictional world with his reality is cleverly done. Both stories unfold simultaneously on stage and the same actors play both casts and speak similar lines, slyly referencing the extent to which a writer lifts from their own life.
And the production looks fabulous. In keeping with the theme, Director Josie Rourke and Designer Robert Jones have recreated 1950s Los Angeles perfectly in its split design with the sexy, evocative black and white world of movies contrasting wonderfully with the bright lights of the booming 1950s movie business. And the video projection work from Duncan McLean is superb with screenplay-style typeface scene descriptions and movie credits ending.
The musical is a comedy and as a satire on both the movie industry and the films it creates, it certainly raises a few laughs. So with all these good ingredients, why didn’t this completely work for me?
Well, though the promotion has all been centred round the four women in the cast, they are not the main characters. The leads are Stine and his created alter-ego Stone, and neither are particularly interesting or engaging (though they are performed well by their actors). It’s just that the characters are rather bland and uninteresting compared with the others.
And there are a lot of other characters. Not including the fabulous four-piece chorus that support the cast, there are 13 other principal actors in this show, most of whom are playing two roles – one in Stine’s real life, another in his movie. That’s a lot to follow, especially in the limited space of the Donmar.
The heart of the story is meant to be in Stine’s real life but he is such an unlikeable character that you have no investment in whether his wife leaves him or not – in fact, you hope she does – so it’s hard to be emotionally caught up in his plight.
The music is good and as a sense of atmosphere, it’s all in keeping with the sexy, stylish theme but there’s only one really stand-out number – “You Can Count on Me” sung superbly by Rebecca Trehearn in her excellent performance as Donna/Oolie, the good, kind woman who’s always overshadowed by the glamorous molls around her.
Visually, City of Angels is gorgeous but sadly, there wasn’t enough beneath the surface to grab me, which is a shame as I was so looking forward to this show. The show is enjoyable, yes, but I suppose I left frustrated with lost potential as this could have been great.
Donmar Warehouse, London to February 7, 2015
1. Katherine Kelly (Carla, Alaura) Photo Credit Johan Persson
2. Hadley Fraser (Stine) Photo Credit Johan Persson
3. Rebecca Trehearn (Donna, Oolie) and Rosalie Craig (Gabby, Bobbi) Photo Credit Johan Persson
4. Samantha Barks (Avril Raines, Mallory) and Ensemble, Photo Credit Johan Persson