Following the roaring success of the MTC’s ingenious adaptation of Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest last year, it seemed the company had determined to capture lightning in a bottle twice by programming another fresh adaptation of a classic with this year’s Double Indemnity. This time around, the script is based on the book, rather than the movie, so perhaps that’s why the result is somewhat disappointing, or perhaps it was just too tough an act to follow.
The 1944 movie adaptation with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck is the preeminent example of the film noir genre, a murder and its investigation, a flawed hero, a sexy and dangerous femme fatale and a story told in flashback. Playwright Tom Holloway’s adaptation has all these things, but through using the original novella as his source material and including an abundance of its plot detail, he has lost much of the intrigue and tension that Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s screenplay version achieved.
Double Indemnity is the story of insurance salesman Walter Huff (Leon Ford), who meets Phyllis Nirdlinger (Claire van der Boom) while on a routine house call to discuss her husband’s policy renewal. When she pursues him to take out an accident policy on her husband’s life without his knowledge, it takes all her feminine wiles to work around Huff’s instinctual decency and eventually convince him to help her murder the man so that they can collect the insurance payout.
Casting choices by Director Sam Strong go against the classic film noir archetypes. Claire van der Boom is undoubtedly attractive and models Esther Marie Hayes’ stunning costumes beautifully, but she lacks the presence of a true femme fatale. There’s no sense of seductive danger about her portrayal of Phyllis, nor is she captivating enough to really convince that she could coerce someone to commit murder for her. Leon Ford was decisively suave in Strong’s 2014 production of Private Lives for the MTC, yet here the director has him pictured as more of a grizzled, beaten down dupe than an imperfect leading man in a desperate situation. As the narrator and protagonist, Walter Huff rarely leaves the stage, and Ford does a commendable job of leading the march, even while delivering narration and changing costume simultaneously, but on opening night, there was a slight sense of discomposure.
This may have been caused somewhat by Andrew Bailey’s intricate three-tracked revolving set design, which while intriguing and impressive in its capabilities, doesn’t add much to the style of the production. A rusted mesh allows scenes to play out behind the walls as they revolve, but visually doesn’t seem to fit the bill for the 1940s noir genre. Perhaps this is why Paul Jackson’s lighting design doesn’t include the classic chiaroscuro style of film noir either, which is a pity because that use of light and dark is key to delivering the kind of tension this type of thriller requires. However, Jackson takes advantage of the opportunities the set does afford with particularly evocative lighting in the action filled murder and railroad scenes.
On the flipside of the coin, composer Kelly Ryall has provided a score that is working overtime to deliver tension in the style of Billy Wilder’s movie adaptation. It does much to bring tension to the action on stage that otherwise isn’t there, but at times is so overwrought that it completely ploughs through the dialogue and feels like it’s underscoring a entirely different scene.
Supporting performances are strong. Peter Kowitz is given a ridiculous amount of exposition to deliver as insurance boss Keyes and somehow manages to ensure it all makes sense. Edwina Samuels is excellent as Huff’s put-upon secretary Nettie. Richard Piper solidly defines his characters of the murder victim, Mr Nirdlinger and witness Mr Jackson. Jessica Tovey’s portrayal of Phyllis’ stepdaughter Lola is intriguing in all the right ways, helping to bring suspicion to her character that Holloway’s script almost throws away. Lachlan Woods defines the number of characters he plays well, particularly Lola’s suspicious boyfriend Nino Sachetti. One can’t help but wonder what would happen if these two performers were swapped out with van der Boom and Ford. It certainly seems they could fill the roles more accurately.
Ultimately, the script is so heavy with exposition, endlessly scouring through the details of insurance policies and the intricacies of what’s required to pull off the scam, that the dramatic tension is completely bogged down. Holloway is determined that we understand all the detail, yet so little of it is required to follow the plot. Meanwhile Strong feels out of his depth in creating a fresh interpretation of a classic thriller for the stage. This is far from his best work.
If you’re a lover of the film version of Double Indemnity, it’s hard to recommend this production. The ending based on the book is far inferior to the movie’s adaptation and certainly this play hasn’t captured the classic film noir style on stage. Even without that comparison, or putting it up against Simon Phillips’ brilliant North by Northwest adaptation, as a stage thriller, it’s pretty unthrilling. Buy a ticket if you want to see some gorgeous costumes, great supporting performances and solid technical achievement, but don’t expect an exciting murder mystery.