“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.
“Nunn’s inspired direction and choices, and the consistently wonderful acting, gives the overall effect of this being one three act play rather than three one act plays”
Kicking off the new decade at the Jermyn Street Theatre is a trio of short, one act plays by Samuel Beckett. A master of solitary minimalism, Beckett wrote many to choose from. The three, compiled and directed by Trevor Nunn for the “Beckett Triple Bill” are, on the surface, quite different from each other and originally written for different media (the stage, television and radio). But Nunn has picked out a common thread of memory and of looking back, allowing them to sit together in illogical harmony as an intimate and seamlessly crafted trilogy. In each play the protagonists are reviewing their lives through their refracted memories. ‘We’ve never been who we think we were once, and we only remember what never happened’. I don’t remember where that aphorism comes from, of course, but it defines the fragile fabric of nostalgia that we all share, and that Beckett so expertly writes about.
“Krapp’s Last Tape” opens the evening. The title of the play seems obvious, that what we are witnessing is the recording of Krapp’s final tape, yet it could also just be his most recent. It is Krapp’s sixty-ninth birthday and he is playing a tape he recorded thirty years earlier, listening with a mixture of contempt and regret. At times he cannot remember the meaning of words he used to use and has to look them up in the dictionary. Afterwards he removes the tape, loads a fresh one and starts recording his older voice, a voice that is scathing about the man he used to be and the man he has become. James Hayes, as Krapp, is captivating; holding the audience tightly in his grasp, even through his long moments of silence. We are as attentive as he is. As he listens, we listen too, and Hayes has the ability to draw us right into the character’s mind.
“Eh Joe” takes us into slightly darker territory. Originally written for television, it translates perfectly to the intimacy of the space. Simon Nicholas’ live, close-up back projection of Joe’s face pays homage to Beckett’s original specifications, but here it is very much a backdrop. We barely notice the camera moving in closer. All our attention is on Niall Buggy who utters not a single word as Joe. Buggy relies on expression alone, and some real tears, as he reacts to the voice in his head. While Buggy is seen and not heard, Lisa Dwan, as The Voice, is heard and not seen. Dwan’s voice is barely above a whisper but it creates a storm in the mind of Joe. Each word a knife going in. A pause for breath, then in again.
Buggy returns for the final round in “The Old Tune”, teaming up with David Threlfall to play Gorman and Cream respectively; two old-timers reunited after many years. Beckett’s radio play injects a small dose of much needed humour to the evening. Buggy and Threlfall are faultless in their portrayal of two bewildered men lost in a modern world that is passing them by – quite literally too with Max Pappenheim’s sound design littering the stage with passing motor cars. The elderly couple remember a time before cars. They remember a lot, but forget just as much too; disagreeing with each other’s memories in a kind of prose version of Lerner and Loewe’s ‘I Remember It Well’. Beckett’s dialogue, often absurd in the extreme, always manages to contain universal themes that we recognise and relate to. The exaggerated nostalgia that provides the comedy is timeless and it still pervades today, having influenced many writers on the way, most noticeably Monty Python’s ‘Yorkshiremen Sketch’.
“Beckett Triple Bill” is an evening of contrast and similarity. I initially set out to appraise each short piece separately, but Nunn’s inspired direction and choices, and the consistently wonderful acting, gives the overall effect of this being one three act play rather than three one act plays.