The Donmar musical - like those at the Menier Chocolate Factory — used to be a regular fixture, both under Sam Mendes and then Michael Grandage. Now Josie Rourke at last seizes the initiative and makes her own musical theatre directing debut at the theatre she now runs, and scores a bulls-eye winner with her first foray into the genre.
It helps that she's chosen a winner to begin with: to be precise, a Tony and Laurence Olivier Award winner for Best Musical for its original Broadway and West End outings in 1989 and 1993 respectively. But she's also instantly recognised two more of the key features of making a musical work. First, that they're collaborative creations, and she's duly assembled a crack team around her to bring it to life, including designer Robert Jones, musical director Gareth Valentine and choreographer Stephen Mear, who between them create exactly the right smoky, jazzy atmosphere, immeasurably assisted also by the lighting of Howard Harrison and sound by Nick Lidster and Terry Jardine.
Secondly, musicals of course depend on the abilities of a cast of musical theatre professionals who can entirely inhabit a song as well as a character. And here Rourke is blessed by one of the best and most versatile companies in London (take a bow, casting director Alistair Coomer).
But let's begin by singing the praises of its brilliant trio of writers — the composer Cy Coleman, his lyricist David Zippel and veteran book writer Larry Gelbart. Theirs is a sly, witty pastiche of a 40s Hollywood thriller — written from the inside out, as we observe a writer called Stine penning one that is then played out in parallel to his own story.
These two worlds are blended effortlessly and seamlessly by being colour-coded: Robert Jones's design has the writer's world in colour, while the film one is in black and white. In the one, we meet writer Stine (the wonderful Hadley Fraser), his wife (Rosalie Craig) and studio boss Buddy Fidler (Peter Polycarpou); in the other, we meet his alter ego Stone (Tam Mutu), a private detective employed to find the missing stepdaughter (Samantha Barks) of a woman (Katherine Kelly) whose rich husband (Mark Penfold) is being kept alive in an iron lung (this is coincidentally the second musical of the year to feature a character thus indisposed; the other was I Can't Sing!).
Each of these actors vividly encapsulates the sense of period and polish required, and their voices are tremendous. This hugely stylish production is a Christmas winner — and should be a dead cert to a transfer elsewhere, I hope.
"If there are angels up there, please answer my prayers and ensure this transfers."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Even if it’s not a perfect show, the presentation is immaculate. Robert Jones’s design is backed by a sky-scraping pile of manuscripts, suggesting the travails of the lone writer. The performances are also excellent ..."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"There is plenty to delight eye and ear in Josie Rourke’s production but I must say I became bored of it long before the end."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"At times the score strays towards frantic pastiche and the storytelling is a bit too ingenious for its own good. But this is a smart, seductive and often very funny show."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard