Theatre review: City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse

Rosalie Craig as Bobbi in City of Angels

Donmar Warehouse | ★★★★☆

Screenwriters get a famously rough ride in Hollywood. After giving birth to their characters and nurturing them into fully-grown, relatable beings, they hand them over to directors who chop, cut and abuse them like neglectful foster parents.
In 1989, Larry Gelbart took the roiling resentment that had built up over years working as a writer in Hollywood, and, with the help of composer Cy Coleman and lyric writer David Zippel, converted it into a tongue-lashing film-within-a-musical called City of Angels. The exercise wasn’t as therapeutic as Gelbart hoped; the show flopped after debuting in the West End in 1993.
It’s hard to see Josie Rourke’s new adaptation suffering the same fate. With smoothly bubbling jazz, razor wit and a smartness surpassed only by swagger, it’s got everything you could hope for from a show about showbusiness, apart from, perhaps, consistently brilliant songs.
The action is split between the life of a Pulitzer-prize winning author, Stine, and one of his stories starring a detective named Stone. Stine desperately wants one of his stories to be adapted for the big screen and is willing to make all sorts of compromises to his artistic integrity to get there. That is until a Hollywood big-wig named Buddy Fiddler (played with hilarious belligerence by Peter Polycarpou) starts vandalising his screenplay.
As a satire of crass, butt-kissing Hollywood, and as a parody of trenchcoat-and-fedora cop noir, City of Angels is perfection. As a musical it’s less successful. There are some memorable songs, especially near the beginning, but really this is all about the dialogue. The script is stiletto sharp with first class jokes coming thick and fast as if sprayed from a Tommy Gun. Smart, sexy and overflowing with panache, theatre is rarely more enjoyable than this.

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