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The Big Sleep (Sonning)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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A wise-cracking journey to the dark side is how I would describe the world of crime writer Raymond Chandler. Many of his books became hit movies in the 1940s and it was intriguing to imagine how this master storyteller’s quintessentially American work could be transferred to the English stage. But with great theatrical ingenuity the team at the Mill at Sonning have indeed created a suitably chiaroscuro landscape where Los Angeles high and low society can collide.

Stepping into the big shoes of previous Phillip Marlowes, such as Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell, Simon Merrells more than holds his own. He has the quick talking, sexy, steel-nerved ‘shamus’ down to a t. Handsome, urbane, manly and just a bit naughty – he is rather irresistible to women and the two female protagonists Vivian and Carmen certainly think so.

They are the troublesome daughters of invalid millionaire General Sternwood, who hires Marlowe because one is being blackmailed and the other’s husband is missing. This starting point unleashes a plot of great complexity, which the production handles very deftly. Murders are committed, women get slapped and the cops are always one step behind the private dick. Marlowe remains throughout the moral compass in this murky world.

Though the star performance inevitably comes from Merrells (he does have all the best lines!) other cast members also shine significantly. A particular favourite was Anna Doolan’s troubled and troubling Carmen Sternwood. Sexy, babyish and lethal she is a perfect foil for her older sister Vivian – controlled, icy, and manipulative – a finely tuned portrayal here by Samantha Coughlan.

There is quite a lot of doubling in the cast as mobsters, policemen, and various suspects traffic across the stage throughout the show – but even though the plot is complex I still managed to follow without too much difficulty who was supposed to be who and what they were up to. I loved Martyn Stanbridge’s Norris the butler – not realising that he also played three other characters in the show.

Director Alvin Rakoff makes interesting use of lighting, film and backdrops to set the many fast-moving locations in the story, and the costumes by Jane Kidd are absolutely perfect.

This is a fine adaptation of a great story. It is well told, fast paced and very exciting. Well worth a visit.

- Angie Johnson


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