Review: City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse, London)

There’s something exhilarating about going to a show’s closing night. 99% of the time, the cast is ready to give it their absolute all, and put everything they’ve got into the performance. At the other 1% of closing nights, they are all pleased to see the back of each other and can’t wait to get through it and onto the next job… But let’s brush over that.

Thankfully, last night at the Donmar fell firmly into the first camp.

It’s been a few years since I graced the Donmar Warehouse with my presence. The last time was to see the ridiculously incredible Chiwetel Ejiofur taking on Shakespeare’s moor back in 2008. How I’ve missed so many great performances on that stage since, I don’t know, but 2015 is the year to change that.

City of Angels is the first musical to be staged at the Donmar in a number of years. Directed by Josie Rourke, it focuses on a writer,  Stine (here played by Hadley Fraser), those around him who influence his characters, and his work of fiction about private detective Stone. Both the real world and the narrative of Stine’s City of Angels film play out alongside one another – the story being created and edited in front of our eyes.

For the most part the book by Larry Gelbart is a solid one. While I heard a few whispers of confusion around me, it’s relatively straightforward, if somewhat muddled by the fact that, with the exception of Stine and Stone, all of the cast play two roles – one in the real world and one in the film. Generally the book (and Rourke) manages to balance the narratives well, but it’s not without fault. The ending feels rushed and slightly at odds with what has come before, and whether the curse of the production or the original material, it seems more like an attempt to tie up loose ends than a fitting conclusion.

Cleverly – if a little predictably – Howard Harrison’s lighting design gives a split personality to the piece that helps place us in the correct timeline. Blacks, whites, greys characterise Stone’s Film Noir existence, while Stine’s real world is a colourful mix of LA beaches, cocktail bars and film sound stages.

That division also carries through nicely to Robert Jones’s set design. Met with a wall of manuscripts on a shelf atop an ever-changing array of 1940s interiors, Stine’s conflicted mind is mostly kept separate from the action of the film. Only when we are in the real world does he venture down from his stoop. While it’s a relatively simple approach, along with the heavy use of projection, it’s very effective.

The real stars of this are the cast though. It’s hard to imagine a stage in London with more talent than on show here. And although musical power couple Hadley Fraser and Rosalie Craig (here playing Gabby and Bobbi) take main billing (and most attention at the stage door), there’s no denying that this is the definition of an ensemble piece. Supporting characters are given almost as much stage time as the leads, so it’s little wonder that Tam Mutu, Samantha Barks, Peter Polycarpou, Rebecca Trehearn, Katherine Kelly and Marc Elliot all seemed to be having plenty of fun taking on their roles.

Mutu, as Stone is given the most stage time of the lot, and with a chiselled face and powerful voice is more than a match for Fraser’s Stine. Frankly, I’m gutted I won’t get to see their head to head in ‘You’re Nothing Without Me’ again – a testosterone-fuelled battle as they try to convince each other that they are in control. Barks is stunning as rich-girl-gone-missing Mallory, Polycarpou seemed to be far too at home as the brash and dismissive Buddy Fiddler, and Kelly was perfectly manipulative as Alaura.

However the real standout for me has to be Rebecca Trehearn – my first time seeing her and hopefully not my last. In a world of black and white boxes of Cheerios, over the top plot points and murky boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, it’s difficult to be believable, but she embodied every ounce of her characters, from her sassy early lines as Oolie to the reveal of Donna’s secret script edits later on. Keep an eye out for her having some big roles in the near future.

Musically this is a bit of an oddball in the West End. One of Cy Coleman’s lesser known works, it’s more reliant on jazz and the sounds of the ’40s than on musical theatre – possibly one of the reasons it didn’t succeed first time around. Thankfully, in the hands of such a talented cast it works well. But on the whole the score isn’t that memorable. With the exception of the aforementioned ‘You’re Nothing Without Me’ and a couple of others, everything works perfectly in the moment to propel the story, but doesn’t sit well outside of that.

Verdict: ★★★★☆

In the hands of a strong cast, this is the West End at its finest. The performances are top notch, and the design and staging are both excellent interpretations of a challenging book. But it felt like it lost its way in the final moments, which is a shame considering the strength of the previous two hours. Still, in a culture of screen to stage adaptations and jukebox musicals, it was refreshing to see something so unique done so well, and London will be a worse place without it.

City of Angels has now closed at the Donmar Warehouse. Next up will be Patrick Marber’s Closer, with Rufus Sewell, Nancy Caroll, Oliver Chris and Rachel Redford. Head on over to the Donmar Warehouse website to find out more.

And the seat…

Circle, row B, seat 36. Surprisingly comfortable considering it’s a glorified bench. Yes, you’re inevitably going to be rubbing shoulders (and probably a bit of leg) against the person next to you, but there’s plenty of padding, a bar to rest your feet on and a nicely padded rail in front to lean on if you fancy developing a hunch. No, the view isn’t completely uninterrupted, but in a place like this, very few seats are perfect, and the closeness to the action more than makes up for it.

Donmar Warehouse, Circle B35
Donmar Warehouse, Circle B36

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