It’s rare that we have the opportunity to experience a new Australian musical on the professional stage. Rarer still is the chance to witness a new local work as well crafted as The Detective’s Handbook.
The New Musicals Australia (NMA) initiative gives up-and-coming writers the opportunity to make submissions to an advisory panel, which could ultimately see their work selected for further development via workshops or, in the case of The Detective’s Handbook, to be given the full production treatment.
With book and lyrics by Sydney actor and writer, Ian Ferrington, and music by recent Sydney Conservatorium of Music graduate, Olga Solar, The Detective’s Handbook is set in Chicago in 1950. A comedic piece, it’s the tale of Detective Frank Thompson (Justin Smith), who’s called upon to investigate the murder of two police officers. He’s assigned a partner, Jimmy Hartman (Rob Johnson), a recently promoted young detective who’s about as wide eyed as they come.
What follows makes for a highly entertaining 85 minutes as the detectives investigate the crime by entering a world that features all of the trimmings we expect to see in a period detective drama – a sleazy bar, some eccentric players and a seductive girl who steals the heart of the story’s hero.
But while the narrative is (intentionally) nothing too far removed from stories we’ve previously seen of this ilk, it feels fresh because it’s packaged together in a slick and stylish presentation, characterised by a sharp book that’s well paced and filled with witty dialogue. On top of that, there’s strong direction from Jonathan Biggins and it’s performed by a first class cast of six, working hard to ensure that Ferrington’s and Solar’s debut on the professional circuit receives the response it deserves.
The role of Thompson fits like a glove for Smith. His portrayal effectively conveys a man committed to the force, but suitably jaded and unenthused by his new partner’s unadulterated idealism about a detective’s role. And Johnson too is exactly the right choice for the green and slightly overzealous Hartman, determined to do everything (rather literally) by the book.
Tony Cogin is convincing in his supporting role as Chief of Police, Paul Flint, the key authoritative figure in the tale. Additionally, Christopher Horsey (also the choreographer of this production) has the opportunity to exhibit his impressive tap-dancing skills during moments surprisingly well woven into the story.
But it must be said that it’s the women who shine here. Sheridan Harbridge, tasked with portraying three characters, is astounding in her ability to carve out three larger than life individuals, each portrayal distinctly different but all as magnetic and engaging as the other. Her delivery of dialogue is wonderfully crisp and her vocals are strong. It’s the performance of a talented artist who leaves you wanting to see more of what she can offer.
Lara Mulcahy is also a standout in multiple roles, but especially as Polish matchmaker, Maria Kowalski. Her fleeting moments to make her mark are maximized. While her flawless comic timing is evidenced by her impeccable delivery of lines, Mulcahy is the kind of stage actor who succeeds, again and again, in generating belly laughs simply by a well-chosen facial expression. It takes a skilled actor to make sure this character has the impact it should, and Mulcahy is very much of that calibre.
The score is highly evocative of the time period and succeeds in progressing the narrative, even though none of the individual pieces is particularly memorable. What does impress though is the fact that Ferrington and Solar have created a piece where the jazz-themed score sits beside rap-infused dialogue in the libretto, and it all fits together seamlessly. There’s nothing clunky or awkward about the manner in which the two have been paired in this work. On its own, that’s an impressive achievement.
Set designer James Browne makes good use of the cosy Hayes Theatre space with a set mounted on wheels that transforms the space from police station to neighbourhood shop to warehouse with considerable ease. His costumes also adhere to the visual images generally conjured by thoughts of Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century.
The Detective’s Handbook is a testament to the musical theatre writing talent that exists on our own shores. It’s a credit to Ferrington and Solar that at such a young age, the duo is capable of such sophisticated writing. It’s a demonstration that, when offered the resources of the professional industry, new musical work can be staged that we can truly be proud to share with the international arts community.
The Detective’s Handbook plays at The Hayes Theatre (19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point) until May 7. To purchase tickets, click here.