THE THIRD MAN at the Menier Chocolate Factory
“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.
Reviewed on 20th June 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Previously reviewed at this venue: