Take a gorgeous blonde with synthetic wig and a touch of Marilyn innocence, a young reporter-cum-gumshoe, a few corpses, a slinky female dominatrix and a labyrinthine plot involving mutant spiders, amnesia, romance and a hint of Chandler-esque cynicism. Into this mixture stir music, humour, copious Film Noir references and you have Croydon Warehouse’s recipe for a Christmas hit. After five successful Dick Barton shows, based on the legendary radio serial, writer Phil Wilmott has bravely taken on classic cinema. And won.
This is a very knowing show, featuring more nods and winks to the audience than a Christie’s sale-room, but it does not exclude those who don’t know their Double Indemnity from their Big Sleep. It is the kind of story where you can tell the goodies from the baddies by how wide open their eyes are. Rosie Jenkins as Delores, the flaxen-haired heroine, an amnesiac heiress who sprinkles her conversation with the names of celluloid greats, has peepers like saucers.
Investigative newsman Joe (Jamie Reed) has a similar, round-eyed innocence. By contrast, Estella (Elizabeth Marsh), aka the Black Widow, peers narrowly under her titian fringe as she slaps her thigh with a riding crop. Rich, ageing husbands go missing. Joe is on to it. But don’t underestimate the spider in the corner of his mucky office...
Femme Fatale, while never aiming for subtlety, doesn’t mind the odd literary reference. The morally and genetically confused doctor, Edgar (Tomm Coles), is a spoof Jekyll-and-Hyde and, if there are no characters in search, Pirandello-style, of an author, there are actors in search of characters who step outside the action to sing of their frustrations in “B Picture Acting”. This is the star number of the show: “B picture acting is a crazy way to earn./ ‘Wish I could do something more profound./ Three whole years at the method acting studio/ Just to be a bozo RKO can kick around.” There’s a different kind of film reference too - Spiderman; Femme Fatale’s villainous arachnid, is a diabolical cousin of the sticky-footed superhero.
Director Ted Craig skilfully marshals his talented cast of six who sing, dance and play musical instruments - even dumb Delores toots a mean trumpet - in the tiny acting space. Everything is in close-up here. Choreography is necessarily limited, but wit there is aplenty. And charm, especially in Jenkins’ delightful Delores, who could so easily have been irritatingly over-played.
Brave the mean streets of East Croydon and do yourself a favour. “If only life could be this fun/ And just as black and white” sing the cast. It can be, for a couple of hours at least this Christmas.