Friday, 24 April 2015

Nice and sleazy… In the Dead of Night, Landor Theatre, London

“Will you marry me?” “No, because trusting is difficult…”

I’ve only occasionally ventured into film noir on this blog but I think the dark and sleazy expressionism of the genre appeals to silent film fans more than most. This was when cinema started dealing with Big Fear in the only way it could: a re-birth of the visual cool with films that were relatively less cluttered by the dialogue explosion of the wise-cracking thirties.

In a reaction to the – literally – Earth-shattering global war and the development of mutually assured socio-political as well as actual destruction – noir confronted the new depths to which mankind could stoop. The enemy was a much within as without as the victors were gifted with a shocked paranoia that lasted well into the fifties and beyond.

Judith Paris and Susannah Allman
Having previously paid splendid tribute to silent film hero William Haines with The Tailor-Made Man, writer and director Claudio Macor shifts forwards to this curious genre and takes it to places it could never have gone in the post-war, post-code world. In his version of the genre, not only are the characters insecure and untrustworthy, they also have more explicit lives and motivations: more shades of grey than the silver screen allowed… with almost all 36 rules of the Hays Code are broken in the play. They should have given us a tick sheet although I spotted the sensual dancing, crime paying and men making passionate love…

The Landor Theatre is an intimate over-pub venue just down the road from Clapham North but you’d be amazed how much dancing can be done on its strictly-limited stage area. At various points there were half a dozen dancers twirling, high-kicking and throwing themselves about with muscular abandon but with immense control. Anthony Whiteman’s choreography (to Paul Boyd’s killer score) pushed the fourth wall to its limits and created a visceral bond between the watchers and the watched – this was theatre in the raw and we were all in way above our heads.

Judith Paris
At the centre of the drama was the extraordinary Judith Paris an actress whose theatrical credits wouldn’t have filled the play’s programme on their own and who has played from the RSC to Broadway and back again via the Tardis and Tom Baker’s Doctor Who (my son recognised her picture instantly). She has great presence and dominated the stage with an energy all of her own as the former femme fatale Elvira who refuses to fade away.

Elvira runs a cat house, the Bar Tangueros, in the nowhere place of La Rocca a shanty-town port you’d think twice about in a storm, somewhere in South America. Her star turns are the strapping Massimo (Jordan Alexander) and the shapely Rita (Susannah Allman) who work hard to provide the hard-working sailors some fleeting comfort.

Ross Harper Millar and Ned Wolfgang Kelly
Elvira is starting to diversify by buying coca leaves from an unkempt freelancer, Martinez (Ross Harper Millar) who is stealing from the drug cartel that runs the area. Martinez is a man of mystery who has obscure motives and knows more than he should… he is loyal to Elvira; steadfast in a way that the majority of the more polished members of humanity are not.

Elvira has more history than the Egyptians and has a hate/hate relationship with local kingpin Falchi (Ned Wolfgang Kelly – now there’s a name to conjure with!) who rode his luck from almost assassin to presidential protector and now works on behalf of the cartel. Elvira pays him protection money but La Rocca’s card has been marked and doom permeates the air.

“Promise me one thing; let me know when you decide to play ghost again…”

Hays Code rules 4 and 36 about to be broken...
The head of the cartel’s son, Leandro (Matt Mella), had a love affair with Massimo and returns to win back his heart after a year away at sea. He manages to rekindle their relationship with the aid of a Tango (fun fact: the Tango was initially a dance between sailors and dockers – hence the battle to take the “lead”?). He and Massimo are soul mates but Leandro’s father wants to make all of La Rocca pay for his son’s life choices… a hard rain is definitely going to fall.

Then an enigmatic Frenchman, Raul (Tristan Robin) arrives and wants to become more than a customer to Rita. Is this a love we can trust for, as Elvira warns, “it takes a long time to capture a heart…” but maybe she is speaking from experience.

Susannah Allman and Tristan Robin
As both couples begin to dream of escape, the noose tightens around the town’s collective neck and the truth between Elvira and Falchi will out…

The leads are all strong with Susannah Allman impressing with her Gene Tierney cool (those dimples!) and Jordan Alexander sleekly intense as the gigolo with a heart of gold. Ross Harper Millar embraces his inner seedy as the messed-up Martinez whilst Mr Wolfgang Kelly makes his Falchi an arch anti-hero: for whom crime pays but also enslaves.

There’s excellent energy from the support including Victoria Sheffield (who puts the ah! in Victoria!), Danny Harris, Daniel James Greenway and  Joshua Clare who all dance and act with equal grace.

"I'd like your blessing..." "I'm not a priest." 

Claudio Macor fills his dialogue with some class and snap; all worthy of the name-checked Bogart and Bacall, Crawford and Gable – clearly this is a labour of love all round and the next time I watch Gilda, Laura or Casablanca it will be through new eyes. The subtext of constrained post-code noir will be that much clearer.

A memorable show and a real privilege to watch in such intimacy; as we left we were already starting to miss La Rocca…

In the Dead of Night is on at Clapham’s Landor Theatre until Saturday 16th May and I would urge anyone with an interest in film and soulful, musical theatre not to miss it!

Book now!

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