Review by Daz Gale
2023 is proving to be an eclectic but consistently strong year for London’s Menier Chocolate Factory with runs of one-man comedy Alex Edelman – Just For Us, Christina Bianco’s In Divine Company and the world premiere of new play Marjorie Prime all impressing (they all got awarded five stars on this website). Expectations are understandably high for the world premiere of new musical The Third Man – and with some absolute legends involved in its creation, it looked set to continue the Menier’s winning streak… but did it manage to or was this a rare misfire for them?
Beginning a trilogy of musicals to play the Menier this year, the world premiere musical adaptation is based on Graham Greene’s story which is perhaps most famous for its landmark 1949 film . Set in post-war Vienna, it tells the story of Holly Martins arriving at the invitation of his friend Harry Lime only to discover he has been killed in what transpires to be mysterious circumstances. As he tries to discover the truth behind what really happened to Harry, he also attempts to find out who is the third man in a show with twists and turns along the way I wouldn’t dare spoil for anyone.
For this production, the Menier Chocolate Factory has been transformed completely with seats surrounding three sides of the stage which all takes place on the same level, reminiscent of the more conventional Southwark Playhouse space. This great use of space opens up the action a lot more and allows the legendary Trevor Nunn to get creative with his direction, which proves to be inspired at times.
Of the production elements, the lighting by Emma Chapman impresses. With The Third Man remaining dark and gloomy throughout, there is a versatile approach to lighting effects which keeps the mood while ensuring sightlines are kept – played perfectly when using shadows to great effect and revealing hidden elements in dark areas of the stage. Gregory Clarkes sound design is also a delight, setting the tone and maintaining it throughout with precise effects and background music.
Not all the elements work so well unfortunately. While Paul Farnsworth’s set design is great initially, having cast members mime invisible props lets it down somewhat… as do the noticeably wobbly props which appear throughout. Also underwhelming is the use of choreography and movement which doesn’t seem to gel with the action taking place and never quite manages to be the standard you would expect from a production such as this.
There are a couple of big problems with The Third Man, however, and these ones are hard to gloss over. While George Fentons music is decent enough even if not many of the numbers are memorable, it is both the book and lyrics that let it down. Surprisingly, one half of the duo behind the book and lyrics is the usually reliable Don Black who in the past has been responsible for lyrics to Sunset Boulevard and Bonnie & Clyde as well as a number of iconic James Bond theme tunes. Sadly, The Third Man is not up to his own high standards and falls short of what we have come to expect from him in his past work.
Along with Christopher Hampton, the pair’s lyrics are haphazardly put together using lazy rhymes. “Go back to London and pick up your pen, don’t come back here again” and “your friend Lime, he’s slime” being two examples of the standard. As a musical theatre fan and a fan of Don Blacks lyrics personally, it is incredibly frustrating for these musical numbers to fall short in such spectacular fashion.
Black and Hampton are also responsible for the book which plods around in clumsy fashion, never quite managing to create a captivating narrative. While it takes the basic premise of the film, it struggles to translate it on to the stage with a confused narrative and a real pacing problem, particularly in act one. A dream sequence in the first act manages to be more laughable than sinister, due to the mix of writing, direction and movement never quite matching. At times, it feels like everyone had a different idea over what this show should be which creates a tonally inconsistent production. While there are strong elements to be found, these are quickly undone by subpar ones.
The cast do the best they can with the material they have been given but struggle due to the production choices. While Sam Underwood shows moments of brilliance leading the cast as Holly Martins, the way the character is played nervously and too understated means he gets overshadowed by fellow cast members. He admirably attempts to hold his own but he is up against it due to the book and, at times, the direction. For a leading performer, I needed a more commanding performance and for one reason or another, this failed to materialise.
Jonathan Andrew-Hume is criminally underused as Sergeant Paine while Simon Bailey is a late addition to the cast but steals scenes and ups the ante with a glorious act two opening number which is easily the best in the entire show. The best performance of the show goes to Natalie Dunne in the sometimes poorly written character of Anna Schmidt. While her characters journey doesn’t flow as naturally as you would like, Natalie remains captivating throughout, delighting with a sensational voice and a performance that demands attention. An act one solo number she performs shows the potential this show had if it had fine-tuned everything a bit more and made sure it all worked cohesively as a musical.
There is the argument that not everything needs to be a musical and I for one have never agreed with that statement. Most things are made better when it is made musical. However, The Third Man is not one of them. It feels like this would have been a lot stronger if it had been adapted into a new play instead, as the musical numbers are by far the weakest element of the show. While the book itself needs work, it has the benefit of an exciting story full of twists to play with. It feels as if attempting to shoehorn musical numbers in to this story unnecessarily has created a big problem for the show.
While The Third Man is admirable in its attempt to recreate film noir on the stage, it never quite manages to connect. There may be potential with this show yet as it did show elements that piqued my interest – however, its clumsy nature meant in its current form, it still has a way to go to solve the mystery of making the whole thing flow more satisfyingly. While it has a couple of decent things going for it, sadly The Third Man isn’t quite at the right level to claim a third star.
The Third Man plays at Menier Chocolate Factory until 9th September. Tickets from menierchocolatefactory.com
Photos by Manuel Harlan