The Menier is one of our favourite theatres, so we always like to catch their shows if they appeal to us. Everyone (even me!) knows the film of The Third Man, and a musical version penned by the creative team of Don Black, George Fenton and Christopher Hampton sounded too enticing for words. To top it off, it was to be directed by Sir Trevor Nunn. My theatrical heart spilleth over. But then came the reviews, and the word of mouth: not good. How could this be, a renowned gripping story with a bunch of creatives like that? Shurely shome mishtake! But the tickets were already bought and we just had to find out for ourselves.
So; The Third Man. Based on Carol Reed’s 1949 British film noir, set in postwar Vienna, where Westerns writer Holly Martins turns up at the invitation of his old friend Harry Lime and the promise of a new job. Trouble is, Lime died the day before Martins flew in. And his death all sounds a bit suspicious. So he stays to investigate, starts to fall in love with Lime’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt, and what’s at first suspicious becomes downright dark and dirty before long.
Everything starts positively. When you enter the Menier auditorium, you never know what the configuration is going to look like, so it’s always exciting! You’re confronted by the blacks and greys of designer Paul Farnsworth’s set, which impress with their inbuilt gloom and despondency, rubbish piled up at a few corners, use of tattered newsprint, a mishmash of pavement coverings suggesting cobbled streets, floorboards and one-time elegant designs. The costumes, too, are perfectly evocative of those grim times, with suits and overcoats in various stages of decrepitude depending on the wealth of the wearer. Trevor Nunn uses every single inch of the available space to suggest busy streets, with people rushing here, there and everywhere. In fact, those of us in the front rows are asked to make sure our possessions (including our feet) are well tucked in and out of the way of the actors. I didn’t dare to let go of my drink lest it accidentally got kicked halfway across the stage and into another quarter of old Vienna.
Tamara Saringer’s orchestra also gives you optimism for a good show to follow, as the opening strains of a kind-of version of Anton Karas’ famous theme lead you into the first scene, a scurry of grey Viennese characters busying themselves about their daily lives; lots of movement, lots to look at, lots that make you think – this is shaping up to be quite good! But then you start listening to the lyrics. Regrettably, they are as trite and repetitive as you can imagine. It’s as though they have been assembled to scrape the barrel of rhymey chimey phrases, designed to give an overall impression of something – Vienna? Poverty? Misery? but with neither depth nor emotion. In fact on the first occasion (yes there are more) that they rhymed Harry Lime with slime, Mrs Chrisparkle let out an audible snort of derision. Unfortunately the music is also extremely forgettable; when we came out, we couldn’t remember one bar of it.
Sadly, no end of the talent that’s on stage or in directing, or in the music and lighting contributions can disguise the thinness and risibility of the material they have to work with. As the show progresses, you can admire and enjoy the performance level of the cast and appreciate the great use of the stage, and the pleasant playing and singing. But the show itself just gets boring. It’s puddingy, bland, soft and doughy. One could compare it unfavourably to blancmange but that’s hardly fair on blancmange. Such a shame and such a wasted opportunity.
In its favour, you have a hard-working and committed cast. Sam Underwood gives a good performance as Holly Martins, increasing in slovenly desperation to work out what happened to Harry. Natalie Dunne sings beautifully as Anna Schmidt – although she is a little inconsistent with the accent which is strongly Mittel Europa when she speaks and rather English rose when she sings. I really liked the double-act of Edward Baker-Duly and Jonathan Andrew Hume as the military police Major Calloway and Sergeant Paine; and I was dismayed to find the splendid Derek Griffiths so underused as the Porter.
You can see the amount of effort that has gone in to bringing this production to the stage and can only admire the skills of those who are working at their best. But those lyrics… how could they have written something so gloopy?
Production photos by Manuel Harlan.
P. S. Not everyone at the Menier on Sunday afternoon was disappointed with the show. The wannabe Gogglebox participants who sat behind us never ceased with their audible oohs and aahs and over-the-top vocal reactions to the most minor of plot developments or moments of adequate acting. They were either high on coke or friends of someone in the cast.