“There is an elegance to all the performances that skilfully navigate the plot twists with boundless energy”
You’re familiar with the platitude; ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’. I’ve never really agreed with the expression. Or rather with the inference that the ‘first impression’ is permanent, and cannot be overridden. Impressions always evolve. Often rapidly. Trevor Nunn’s production of “The Third Man” reinforces my opinion.
We walk into a transformed auditorium. Paul Farnsworth’s powerfully evocative set recreates the monochrome decay of post-war Vienna. The musical strains of the zither clashes with, but also sharpens, the tension. It is a familiar sound, reassuring yet haunting. The dusky mood is established as lost souls wander through the blackened city. Holly Martins, a bankrupt ‘hack’ novelist, wanders into the debris looking for his old friend Harry Lime. Ignoring the smoky undertones, he incongruously bursts into song. “This is Vienna… not like the movies”. It is almost as if we are being instructed to resist the impulse to compare this stage adaptation to the original 1949 iconic film. Which is sound advice.
Sam Underwood convincingly portrays Holly Martin, lost in a sea of intrigue; and driven to the brink and to drink. Discovering that his old friend has been killed in a car ‘accident’, he smells a rat and decides to pursue it with a feline tenacity. Edward Baker-Duly’s upper crust, hard-headed military policeman, Major Calloway, continually tries to throw him off the scent. Everyone has something to hide, especially the initially affable Baron Kurtz (a sinister Gary Milner). There is an elegance to all the performances that skilfully navigate the plot twists with boundless energy, but the pace and focus are severely hindered by the music and lyrics.
It is as though the composer, lyricist and writer worked in separate rooms, only coming together at the last minute. Nobody got the memo, it seems, and the result is a bit like channel hopping, only we’re not in control of the remote. Just as our interest is being drawn into the dialogue, we suddenly find ourselves in a song that has sprung from nowhere. And just as you are in the shadowy world of film noir, you suddenly catch yourself fluttering among the pages of a Mills and Boon. George Fenton’s score is undeniably impressive, but it is the underscoring that stands out and evokes the true atmosphere of the piece. The musical numbers themselves appear to have been plucked off the shelf.
Nevertheless, the staging is quite majestic, and Nunn draws out excellent performances from his cast. Natalie Dunne, as Anna Schmidt, gives a very watchable, husky and cool performance as Harry Lime’s grieving girlfriend. Her commitment is unwavering – it is her solo numbers that, despite being moments of beauty, are wondering what they are doing here. Part of the answer lies in the choice of Schmidt being a cabaret singer instead of an actor, but it is a contrived decision.
The major plot twist is weakened by the libretto, even in the face of Simon Bailey’s natural charm as the morally dubious Harry Lime. Yet it is hard to believe that the character can elicit the levels of emotion that are trying to be conveyed. Normally song should be able to express a feeling better than putting it into words. “The Third Man” is billed as a musical thriller, but it should have opted for one or the other.
“It makes no sense at all” Holly Martin sings as we approach the finale. We can’t help agreeing with the sentiment. Paradoxically, however, it is an enjoyable and finely crafted piece of theatre. That does make sense, given the weight of expertise and experience of the individuals behind its creation. It needs more time and thought to bring it together. Ultimately, “The Third Man” deserves a second chance to correct the first impression.
“The production values are up there with the best”
On its release in 1935, the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film of “Top Hat” was recognised for its flaws but generally it was received positively. The New York Times praised the film’s musical numbers, but criticized the storyline, describing it as “a little on the thin side”. In retrospect it was described as a “glamorous and enthralling depression-era diversion”. When the musical adaptation had its world premiere a decade ago, little, if anything, had been done to thicken out the story but six more songs by Irving Berlin were added to the eight that were featured in the film. Initially playing out of town it made its home at the Aldwych Theatre for the next year and a half.
The revival at the Mill at Sonning sees it scaled down; but only in terms of the intimacy of its playing space. The production values are up there with the best, and the feel-good spectacularity (yes, that is a word) is enhanced by being so up close to the action. Nearly a century on from the golden-age of musicals, we can still feel the glow that warms our hearts when we most need it. A “glamorous and enthralling depression-era diversion” has never been more apt a description.
Let’s get the one and only gripe out of the way. “A little on the thin side” is putting it politely. Good, that’s out of the way. The story is based on a singular comedy of error, and spun thinner, but director Jonathan O’Boyle has worked on it with an alchemist’s skill to create theatrical gold. The story follows Broadway star Jerry Travers (Jonny Labey) who arrives in London for his West End stage debut, and then promptly falls for socialite Dale Tremont (Billie-Kay). But being a screwball comedy, things do not go to plan of course. Tremont mistakes Travers for producer Horace Hardwick (Paul Kemble) – a married man – and is therefore horrified at his advances. The themes and wisecracks are pushing their sell by date, but there is nothing that can be done about that, so we are left to face the music and dance.
From the opening bar of the overture to the closing bar of the finale we are enchanted. Jonny Labey is in his element, letting his natural energy and joy wash over us in glorious waves of smooth charisma. Billie-Kay’s cool Dale Tremont counterbalances nicely, gradually warming to Travers’ irresistible charm while never letting herself boil over. Kemble gives a glorious portrayal of put-upon producer Hardwick, matched by Julia J Nagle’s crisp, classy and cool Madge – the wife who pulls the shots. A terrific ensemble fills out the space with West End pizzazz, and the smaller roles are beefed up with real comic flair: Brendan Cull is a constant delight as Bates – Hardwick’s eccentric valet. And Andy Rees hilariously hams it up as Dale’s personal dresser, Beddini.
Everyone is a triple-threat and with Ashley Nottingham’s creative, sharp, synchronistic choreography everyone shares the spotlight. Even the scene changes are choreographed into the action. Natalie Titchener’s costumes seem spun from the golden-age itself, while Jason Denvir’s ingeniously crafted Art Deco set transports us, by sheer sleight of hand, to each location – keeping up to speed with the costume changes.
Many of Irving Berlin’s best-known numbers are given the all-star treatment here. Arranged by Musical Director Francis Goodhand it is hard to believe that he is accompanied by just two other band members (Joe Atkin-Reeves on reeds and woodwind and Callum White on drums and percussion).
Ultimately, though, the show belongs to Labey. The original film was a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Labey comfortably steps into his shoes. His infectious and delightful (often cheeky) grin follows us all the way home. We also cannot shake off the froth and the feelgood factor. Entertainment dances with absurdity and it is the perfect combination. Throw in dinner as well, and the stunning setting of the Mill, you certainly feel like you’re puttin’ on the Ritz.