The drinks: Earlham Street Clubhouse
The evening’s story actually started last October during London Cocktail Week, that most magical of times in the capital. A £10 wristband gets you cocktail bars across the city, from Mayfair hotels to Bethnal Green dives, throwing open their doors and sliding over £4 drinks, most of which are specially created for the festival.
Now I am usually wary of American-themed bars and restaurants, especially in Covent Garden, where the ratio of cynically marketed places with high prices and bad food is higher than in most of London. If the Earlham Street Clubhouse hadn’t been 75m from the London Cocktail Week wristband pick-up point, I probably wouldn’t have ever gone in. The menu outside lists cheap pizzas named after retro video games and cocktails inspired by ’80s-’90s American teen pop culture; inside the walls are spattered with US sports paraphernalia. I had pre-written it off as a tryhard ripoff until we ordered our drinks and it turned out to be, actually, a pretty excellent bar, with American-style service (ie, the bartenders make eye contact and, if you want, conversation) and really quite good drinks.
It also won my heart with a shot of nostalgic accuracy when I spotted a pile of red plastic cups behind the bar. “WHERE DID YOU GET THOSE??!” I demanded, grabbing the bartender’s shirtfront. “I HAVE NOT SEEN CUPS LIKE THAT SINCE COLLEGE AND THEY ARE EXACTLY RIGHT, WHERE DID YOU GET THEM? I NEED SOME??!!?!”
“Cash and Carry!” he said cheerfully, then picked up a stack and handed them to me. “They’re, like, 2p. Here, have some!”
Earlham Street Clubhouse also does a £5 cocktail happy hour from 5-7pm, ie key pre-theatre drinking time, which is great as it is literally right next door to the Donmar – like, there are two doors next to each other, one is the ESC and one is the Donmar – and last week, after I’d been there since 6:15ish, was even kind enough to charge me happy hour price for a drink that I definitely unambiguously ordered at 7:08pm.
The play: City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse
Like most high school theatre kids, I first encountered City of Angels through finding the song “You Can Always Count On Me” in a Musical Theatre Solos For Mezzo-Sopranos anthology. It’s a lyrical delight even without context – listen to the hairpin-turn imagery in this: “When I can play the second fiddle I’m a virtuoso/I should be playing with a wedding band/But there’s no wedding rings attached/Though you can bet there’s strings attached”. (Wikipedia says this was lyricist David Zippel’s first big show – where the hell did that come from?) So I got my ticket on the strength of that song, basically, and the theatre, since I’ve never seen a duff show at the Donmar.
What a pleasingly odd musical comedy City of Angels turned out to be. It has two connected storylines. One is a ’40s noir pastiche, in which the Los Angeles private detective Stone (Tam Mutu) is hired by socialite trophy wife Alaura Kingsley (Katherine Kelly) to find her missing stepdaughter Mallory (Samantha Barks). But the scenes we see of this story are actually part of a screenplay being written by Stine (Hadley Fraser), a successful detective novelist who has been hired by studio boss Buddy (Peter Polycarpou) to adapt his book for film. The women in Stine’s life have counterparts in his noir screenplay: Stine’s wife and editor Gabby (Rosalie Craig) reappears as nightclub singer Bobbi, and Buddy’s secretary Donna (Rebecca Trehearn) becomes Stone’s girl Friday, Oolie. The film world is sharply lit and costumed in black and white, the ‘real’ world is in gorgeous colour.
At first, looking at the summary, I thought we were in for another iteration of that apparently neverending theme, The Sad Life of a White Male Writer. Stine is frustrated that studio-mandated changes to his story are compromising the integrity of his art, and hurt that his wife is abandoning him to go on a business trip to New York. For the first fifteen minutes I was rolling my eyes and glad that at least the jokes were snappy.
But through the evening, the musical more undercuts than validates Stine’s feelings of wounded self-righteousness: yes, his detective novel has extremely clever lines (City of Angels has one of the best books of a musical I can remember seeing), but the narrative is a reshuffled stack of cliché characters and situations; and when his wife leaves for one single week, it takes about two days for Stine to resentfully strike up an affair with his boss’s secretary. I was also surprised and pleased by how schlubby Fraser went with the part (he is an extremely handsome man): as the show went on Stine became simply pathetic, hunching his shoulders and glaring sullenly out from behind thick-rimmed glasses and sweaty hair.
The women (except one, see below)’s songs are mostly about how disappointing men are, a theme that would get tired except for how witty and fun each one is. “You Can Always Count On Me”, sung by Oolie/Donna, was spectacular, but my favourite was Gabby’s brilliantly precise I’m-not-angry-I’m-just-disappointed-okay-and-angry “It Needs Work”, in which she uses her editorial expertise to rip apart a note her husband left explaining why another woman answered his hotel phone.
Some of Stine’s problems are supposed to be justified, especially about the studio meddling with his work. His main disagreement with Buddy is over a character’s motivation for hating the protagonist – Stine wrote the character as a Latino cop passed over for promotion in favour of a white colleague, but Buddy wants to erase the racial conflict and turn it into a love triangle. Josie Rourke adds a sharp accent to this by casting black actors as the chorus and extra parts. When Buddy, face-down on a massage table, expansively declares “Just change all that brown, yellow and black stuff to red, white and blue”, his black masseuse digs in an elbow. “Take it easy!” he squawks. “There’s a person under this skin!” I mean, sure the black people are still non-speaking chorus parts, and yes the show does end on a lovey duet between two white guys, but it’s also a musical comedy with a plot point about it being wrong to whitewash racial issues and that final number is excellent.
It’s a buoyant, mutually congratulatory duet between Stine and Stone – ie, a guy singing to/with his own fantasy self-insert character – and it’s also rather sad and desperate. Titled “I’m Nothing Without You”, the first four lines are “I’m nothing without you/Without you, I lack what it takes/Unless we’re combined/I have half a mind”, and though it sounds cheery and triumphant, it really points to Stine’s anxious emptiness: a writer who felt driven to create an idealised version of himself, that character a handsome hero who flirts adeptly with rich socialites, has teenage girls turn up nearly naked in his bed, and is dumped by a fictionalised version of his wife (anticipating the real thing). In the last verse, Stone announces “A Hollywood ending!” and summons his creator’s wife back onstage, and the song resolves with an all-cast singalong and a major chord. But Gabby and Stine don’t touch or obviously reconcile, and the enduring image of their marriage we’re left with is her earlier musical evisceration of him. It looks and sounds feel-good, but a second look reveals a flailing frenzy of self-delusion.
So it was all good except, and this is where I am wondering if I missed something while pissed, what the heck does City of Angels think it is doing with the character of Mallory Kingsley? The character is a Bad Girl TM, with dyed platinum blonde hair (awesomely, the wig Samantha Barks wears has visible brown roots). When Stone is handed a picture of her at 16, he archly describes her as “an early developer”, and at the time of the story she’s presumably in her late teens. And her main scene is entirely her rolling around Stone’s bed in her underpants singing a sexy song (“Teasing lips/Pleasing thighs/Easy on/Private eyes”). I guess you could read the scene as a criticism of Stine’s general issues with women, since it takes place in the fictional noir world, but that feels a little bit like sticking a post-it note with a Judith Butler quote onto Page Three and calling it feminist criticism. IE I am not convinced that replicating sexy objectification of women, but with ironic quote marks, is meaningfully different than any other kind of sexy objectification of women. Barks sung the hell out of it and is a very funny actor, but the scene and part just seemed weirdly out of place in such an otherwise smart show.
- Maybe this hasn’t come across but City of Angels is extremely hilarious, and every scene is just such a pleasure to watch. At the Donmar of course the cast and production are excellent, but they’re working with sharp, well put together material: the book, lyrics and music are all by people who know what they’re doing with pacing, beats and lining up audience expectations, and even when the content is a bit fluffy, the craft and execution are delightful.
- Best use of a grand piano dangling from the ceiling since the RSC Histories.
- During the interval I was ordering at the bar when a friendly looking woman walked in with a friend, and I caught the phrase “spectacular boobs”. I thought she was talking about Samantha Barks’ bedroom costume, and said, “Oh my gosh, yes, they were really impressive, weren’t they?” She said, “Oh no, I was talking about mine!” and explained it was her first night away from her five-month-old. We then had a 12-minute conversation about public breastfeeding at the bar, much to the delight of the 17-year-old-looking boy pouring drinks I am sure.
- I can’t tell if the final scene had a twisty plot as a joke, or whether it just seemed like that because of 3x cocktails + 2x glasses of sauv blanc, but I do remember staring at the amazing brown dress on one of the chorus members. There was a plot point involving an iron lung I think??
- My single favourite moment of acting was Rosalie Craig lighting a stage cigarette while being swiftly pushed across the stage at the top of a twisting, full-storey staircase. And she lit it with enough time to inhale and lean on the banister and look fatale, because she is a professional.