THE GUARDIAN Michael
Billington 14.12.04 * * * *
Film noir has long attracted theatre-makers, from Larry Gelbart in City of Angels to Roger Michell and Richard Maher in Private Dick. Phil Willmott's Femme Fatale, though eventually deviating into gothic horror and sci-fi, offers two hours of knowing, jovial, rib-nudging pastiche. Willmott starts by following the noir rules: we have a trench-coated Chandler, a wisecracking editor, a "Black Widow" with a penchant for ageing plutocrats and an amnesiac chambermaid who just happens to turn up at the scene of a number of grisly murders. But once we get into the world of a genetic freak who mutates into a human spider at midnight, we seem to have left the shadowy urban milieu of Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang and Edward Dmytryk far behind. Only purists will object, however; Willmott's wit and the songs he has co-written with Stefan Bednarczyk keep the show very much alive. The Black Widow, we learn, is on the run from justice for "grabbing rich, ailing millionaires by their will and testaments". And the amnesiac Delores has a strangely perfect memory for movies, crying out: "Don't leave me all alone like Ida Lupino in High Sierra." The songs, too, perpetuate the mood of campy jocularity. I particularly liked a lament by the once-ambitious B-movie bit-part players who end up as "the bozos RKO can kick around". Ted Craig's production hits the right note - literally so in the case of the versatile six-strong cast who, when not performing, nip behind a gauze curtain to play piano, trumpet or double bass. Rosie Jenkins has exactly the right dizzy, breathless charm as the chambermaid. There is staunch support from Tim Frances as a succession of menacing heavies and from Kit Benjamin as an affected English butler in the lisping style of Eric Blore. It all adds up to a jolly successor to this theatre's long line of Dick Barton spoofs, even if it makes you wonder whether modern theatre isn't becoming dangerously dependent on the movies.dependent on the movies.
THE TIMES Ian Johns 06.01.05 * * * *
Having sent up the jingoistic Boy's Own heroics of that special agent Dick Barton, Phil Willmott now walks the mean streets of Hollywood film noir with a tongue in his cheek rather than a gun in his pocket.
Femme Fatale has the requisite elements of 1940s American thrillers - all duplicitous dames, moody music and cigarette smoke. They include a hard-boiled newspaper editor, an amnesiac blonde, and a vamp known as the Black Widow who grabs "ailing millionaires by their will and testaments". A reporter (Jamie Reed), more wide-eyed Jimmy Olsen than laconic Philip Marlowe, is also on the trail of a psychopath who kills like a spider. In the second half, with the discovery of a Jekyll and Hyde doctor (Tomm Coles) with arachnid tendencies and eye-patched assistants called Otto, we've entered the laboured spoofing of B-movie horror.
The script works better putting the ham in Hammett but there's plenty to enjoy in Ted Craig's buoyant production, including songs by Willmott and musical director Stefan Bednarczyk. The highlight is B-Picture Acting in which actors lament: "Wish I could do something more profound/ Three whole years at the Method acting studio/ Just to be a bozo RKO can kick round."
There's fun, too, in seeing the six-strong cast providing the musical backing when not caught up in the silly plot. So Rosie Jenkins not only brings some ditzy charm to the amnesiac Delores, who keeps likening herself to film noir heroines ("My dumb brain's all Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number"), but also adds atmospheric sizzle with her muted trumpet.
At times it's hard to keep track of who's playing the laid-back ramblings of the bar-room piano (is that Tim Frances breaking away from being various heavies?) or the stretched notes of the sax that spell glamour. But that's part of the show's charm as you see Elizabeth Marsh as the Rita Hayworth-meets-Cruella De Vil Black Widow, then brandishing a flute. Or Kit Benjamin as an English butler one minute, a fat-cat lawyer the next and then somehow fitting in playing the double bass.
The snugness of the Warehouse stage means that everything is played in close-up so don't expect a chorus line of gumshoes or mutant freaks. Femme Fatale is pastiche on a budget that ultimately seduces you with the charm of its hard-working cast.
WHAT'S ON Roger Foss 15.12.04 * * * *
At Croydon's bijou Warehouse Theatre, dames of a different feather feature in the flirtatiously funny Femme Fatale, a Christmas show for grown-ups celebrating the world of Hollywood's film noir queens of mean. Croydon-ites may have got used to the various editions of Dick Barton that have filled this for several festive seasons. But writer Phil Willmott, director Ted Craig and composer Stefan Bednarczyk haved moved seamlessly from the derring-do world of 1940s British wireless to 1940s all-American celluloid, by paying homage to edgy black and white movies like Ministry of Fear, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gilda and Double Indemnity, usually featuring a come hither, double-crossing, desperate woman manipulating her paranoid fella.
Ahh, if all of this brings back memories of sweater girl Lana Turner at her sexiest or murderous Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce then Femme Fatale is right up your dark and dangerous alley. The crazy plot involving a red-headed millionaire- eating broad dubbed The Black Widow, a cub reporter, a glamorous groom, a mad English butler, a tubby tycoon who dresses up as a baby a la Jerry Springer - The Opera, and a platinum blonde with memory loss. Film Noir edges more towards Ed Wood schlock horror by the end. But the multi-talented cast, who play a variety of musical instruments, do B-movie acting with gay abandon, so much that rather like Rosie Jenkins' Delores, I too began to feel like Claire Trevor in Street of Chance.
THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY Kate Bassett 03.01.05
Ted Craig's production is in the jocular spirit of Croydon Warehouse's low-budget Dick Barton shows.
For cinephiles, the dialogue is stuffed with allusions to Mildred Pierce, I Wake Up Screaming, you name it. Furthermore, the plot mutates into sci-fi schlock horror. The whip-cracking femme fatale, Elizabeth Marsh's Estella, is not just nicknamed the Black Widow - we glean that she is in cahoots with a half-human, half-spider serial-killer freak. The action keeps rolling, the ditties are witty and the tunes quite catchy. Tim Francis has a great gravely voice, perfect for hard-boiled narrating. Jamie Read is likeably wide-eyed as the cub reporter-cum-romantic hero, and Rosie Jenkins plays the dumb blonde heiress-turned-amnesiac chambermaid with pert comic timing.
TIME OUT Madeline North 21.12.04
Dick Barton must be resting. The sparky team behind the Warehouse's hardy perennial have their pastiche guns aimed at different prey this Christmas: the shadowy world of film noir. The Black Widow is on the loose, and a plucky rookie reporter plans to make his name tracking her down. Will he find her before she makes another killing? And can he file his copy in time for his hot date with amnesiac blonde? If the loyal Warehouse audience weren't exactly on tenterhooks, they were munching contentedly on half-time burgers and, in the second part, oohing and booing in all the right places.
Writer Phil Willmott has gleefully mixed his genres -aside from the noir references, there are poaches from 'Rosemary's Baby', 'Psycho', 'Rocky Horror', 'The Fly' - even 'Jerry Springer the Opera'. It's not quite up to the singing detective's exacting comedy standards - there are fewer catchy tunes here than in 'Barton' and the spoofing can be laborious - but lighting and set designers Matthew Eagland and Ellen Cairns do a superb, shoestring job of summoning the jagged angles and moody black-and-white of the genre, and 'Barton' regular Kit Benjamin keeps things dependably silly in an apparently endless string of roles. Winning, too, is Delores's (Rosie Jenkins) habit of beginning every statement with a breathless noir quotation - one of those jokes that gets funnier with every utterance. In short, this is popcorn theatre - easy on the eyes, ears and grey matter. But we need a bit of that. As a regularly sold-out venue would seem to testify.
SUNDAY TELEGRAPH John Gross 09.01.05
In recent years the Warehouse in Croydon has been enlivening the winter gloom with a series of spoof adventure stories loosely inspired by the 1940's BBC radio hero Dick Barton. The formula had begun to look a bit tired, however, and the Warehouse team (writer Phil Willmott, director Ted Craig, musical director Stefan Bednarczyk) have wisely decided to move on. In their new show, Femme Fatale, they are still harking back to 1940's popular culture, but the object of their tongue-in-cheek homage is now the Hollywood film noir. Some very noirish ingredients have been mixed into the brew. They include shadowy silhouettes, wailing saxophones, a sinister lawyer, a sick psychiatrist, a missing heiress and a sultry killer who is wanted in five states for "grabbing ailing millionaires by their will and testaments". (The papers have dubbed her "The Black Widow", which is also the cue for a complicated subplot about spiders.)
Much of the humour in the early scenes is provided by wide-eyed blonde who is suffering from amnesia but none the less enjoys instant recall of a hundred crime movies featuring Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck and the like. Despite a delightful performance from Rosie Jenkins in the role, the show gets off to a slow start in the first half. But after the interval it soars away into giddy and entertaining realms of nonsense. The noir theme is expanded to take in generous helpings of mad-surgeon science-fiction and schlock horror, there are some engaging songs, and the cast (who also play assorted musical instruments) give their all. Elizabeth Marsh cracks a mean riding-crop as the Black Widow; Kit Benjamin shines in a number of roles, but especially as a suave English butler.
THE STAGE Liz Arratoon 23.12.04
Anyone with even a passing interest in old black and white Hollywood B-movies will love this latest offering from the creative team behind the mega-successful Dick Barton series. Following a similar musical pastiche formula, this time the forties film noir genre comes under their scrutiny and a dark tale of murder, mystery and mutation ensues. Buffs will be tested by the clever references to any number of films and their stars.Rosie Jenkins is perfect as Delores, the ditzy, innocent blonde, suffering from blackouts and memory loss and she has a great voice too. Her antithesis is Estella, alias the Black Widow, played by Elizabeth Marsh. A wicked femme fatale, she has already run through five rich and elderly husbands.Delores is torn between two men trying to remedy her plight - Joe, the cub reporter, portrayed brilliantly by Jamie Read and the troubled doctor, Edgar, whose torment is well captured by Tomm Coles.Tim Frances is superb as the fast-talking, ruthless Irwin and equally good as the henchman Manfred, while Dick Barton regular Kit Benjamin as ever handles a range of parts, notably the upper-class English butler, Granger and Joe's editor.
Ellen Cairns' sets are always eye-catching and here she has used giant strips of film and stylised furniture cutouts - lit by Matthew England - to great effect.
Femme Fatale may not have quite the zip or full-on hilarity of the early Dick Bartons but it is great fun and there are some outstanding performances from the multitalented cast.
ROGUES & VAGABONDS Theatre Website Howard Loxton 16.12.04
Writer Phil Willmott, director Ted Craig and composer and musical director Stefan Bednarczyk - the team that created the five Dick Barton spoofs which have delighted audience in past years - have this year turned from radio to cinema for the inspiration for their festive season show. Femme Fatale cocks a snook at some of Hollywood's film noir products of the 1940s and 1950s, from the Raymond Chandler crime and newspaper reporter stories to monster horror. Designer Ellen Cairns presents a black and white world made up of strips of sprocketed cine film in which panels can slide back to reveal shadow projections of the creature holding a laboratory tank of a deranged scientist. Furniture and props are black cut-out silhouettes, a vase of flowers adding a contrasting colour highlight: simple and very effective. The wail of a lone saxophonist, seen in silhouette, and the voice of Raymond Chandler set the scene in "a timeless place" with "shadows from the silver screen", and here they are: the detective, tough newspaper editor, the tyro reporter, the amnesiac blonde, the serial widow, the scientist with Teutonic henchmen, the psychiatrist who at midnight does a Jekyll and Hyde and, to top it all, the monster, a man-eating spider that will literally suck you dry.
The music by Bednarczyk, with contributions from Wilmott and played live entirely by members of this multi-talented company, draws on the sound of Hollywood musicals with one touch of Gilbert and Sullivan and an echo of Kurt Weill, and the numbers staged by Darren Royston. The script neatly dovetails the different story genres, and the songs range from a number that works in as many film titles as possible to titillate the movie-buff and a send up boy-girl cliche, to a delightfully batty number about animals in small ads.
Director Ted Craig keeps the production moving through the amusing first half as the plot is set up, but it is after the interval that it really takes off when the actors come out of their film characters for a number in which they bewail their lot as B picture actors. This properly establishes the multi-layers of the performance and the whole thing comes together. However, I could have done without a number for a fetishist company lawyer in baby clothes. No fault of performer Kit Benjamin; I've just seen it once too often. Benjamin is fine in this characterization and also gives full-blown performances as an unctuous British butler, a lecherous hotel manager and a classic newspaper editor. Elizabeth Marsh is the title vamp, the whip-wielding Black Widow Estella. You wouldn't want her to "grab you by the wills and testimonials". She makes a black and scarlet contrast to bubble blonde Delores, who has lost her memory but found a suitcase full of dosh. Rosie Jenkins plays her with an engaging, open-eyed innocence straight out of Born Yesterday. She is very happily paired with Jamie Read's eager cub reporter, though also romantically pursued by Tomm Coles's smooth psychiatrist.
Tim Frances is Irwin, the highly trained method actor who finds himself caught in the spider's web. Irwin is Dolores' unbrotherly brother and introduces the story as a world-weary, rain-coated Raymond Chandler. And the old guy in the wheelchair and the wonderfully awful wig - by a process of deduction it must have been Jamie Read again - this is an enjoyable piece of mayhem provided you are in a holiday mood, if not quite so zany as the Dick Barton predecessors: give it a chance.