The lights go down, a police siren wails, jets of dry ice appear, a saxophone moans, sunshine is refracted through slatted blinds. It’s a world of sharp suits, hats all round, minks casually worn, and cigarettes a constant prop.

We are back in the film noir language of the 40s and 50s, with Bogart and Bacall in mind, and apparently thick-skinned loners fighting an uphill struggle against amorphous institutionalised corruption. But Hardboiled is more than the celebration and send-up of a familiar genre that I expected from the programme and flyer. It’s a great feat of acting, mime, dance and quick-change technical brio from (only) four young performers and a creative team who are at the top of their game.

If the ambience owes a lot to The Big Sleep, then the plot is quite close to Chinatown, but filtered through the Californian Enron power scandal of a few years back. Sam Shadow (Julian Spooner) has inherited his father’s private detective business and is looking for new clients with the assistance of his eager assistant Betty (Jess Mabel Jones). He gets more than he bargains for in the form of Scarlett Addison (also played by Jones), the entitled, self-assured wife of the boss of the local power company, Clifford Addison (Christopher Harrisson). Her very entrance runs the gamut of stylised femme fatale conventions in affectionate satire.

Her lover Lewis MacIntyre (Matthew Wells) is head of maintenance at the power company, and has suddenly disappeared. At the same time LA is regularly experiencing power outages for no obvious reason, while the share price of Addison Electric continues to rise with suspicious dealing either side of the power cuts. Gradually the pace intensifies as Shadow begins his investigation and finds that the two stories are more and more intricately intertwined. There are plenty of sub-plots and other characters too, including corrupt policemen, gormless journalists, sassy waitresses and ditzy receptionists, all played with nicely differentiated incisive clarity by members of the company.

Actually, the plot does not matter very much in the end. The audience knows the conventions of the genre and what we witness is admirable riffing on it, in the same way that in the best jazz improvisation we lose sight of the standard tunes that gave rise to the piece. There is a remarkable and admirable economy of means at work here, with a fine quality in the result.

Designer David Harris has done wonderful things with a small budget. Two frames on wheels are made to work hard to suggest shabby offices and dodgy apartments; industrial fencing comes and goes, and the disturbing fizz of numerous suspended bulbs with glowing elements take us into the electricity sub-station that is at the heart of the mystery. In a moment a door is flipped over to become a bar, and the lighting design, crucial work here by Lawrence T Doyle, suggests a bar that could have been painted by Edward Hopper, full of drinkers who have already have one too many for the road.

This collaboration from Rhum and Clay Theatre and The Watermill Theatre is in fact reminiscent of the fine work of the 1927 team in Golem, recently seen at the Trafalgar Studios. While this play has much more emphasis on spoken dialogue there is the same sense of using all the sensuous apparatus of theatre to provide visual equivalents and embodiments and enactments at every point of the dramatic narrative. For example, there is a lovely vertiginous moment shortly after the bar scene when the walls of Shadow’s office reel and buckle in sympathy with his own drunken state of mind. Crucially, in a genre where so much emotion is repressed, the externals are eloquent where the characters are silent, and we have here on stage the richly imagined equivalent of what the cinematographer is aiming for on film.

All the actors do a fine job with their parts – this is a real company show – and director Beth Flintoff creates a continuously fluid, supple narrative in motion, with lots of athletic and choreographed movement, that never seems too hurried or pressured, despite the fact that no one is still for long. I particularly liked the variety of invention from Jones and Wells whose skill in varying characters made you forget that they had just gone out of the door a moment before as someone else.

In this respect the show is quite like the frenetic Jane Eyre recently showing at the National Theatre. That is mainly a compliment but also a comparison that suggests one area where the show could be tighter still. As so often in plays that are developed in collective workshop format, the text suffers from not having one single guiding hand. It is not that the writing lacks skill – far from it. The lines are plausible and often genuinely witty and playful. Scarlett’s disdainful riposte to the men near the denouement is an example of a line you could imagine in the mouth of Bacall:

You think you’re two tigers in the night, but you’re just a pair of kittens.

The problem is more that what works tactically or locally in each scene may not hang together quite so well when seen at a distance in the context of the whole. That is where a governing dramaturg would have been a great assistance, particularly in the later stages once the main plot lines are laid bare. There are a few too many twists and turns in the final sections that might have been usefully pruned a little.

There is an issue of tone at the end as well: as in much satire, even affectionately done, I was not quite clear whether we were meant to engage with or remain aloof from the characters at the end. How many receding mirrors of cynicism had we been through, and at what point of empathy, if any, do we finally emerge?

These observations about where the heart finally belongs only marginally detract from a constantly entertaining and indeed virtuosic display of acting technique and theatrical device that shows great respect for a tradition while finding the space for fresh creative invention.

Hardboiled - Reivew
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…