One goes to see a play or film written by a friend with some trepidation. What do you say to them at the bar afterwards if you don’t like it? Thankfully there was no such problem with Charlie’s Dark Angel, a theatre noir written and directed by James Christopher, and playing at the Drayton Arms until March 28.
I’ve known and worked with James for 20-plus years: first when he was Deputy Theatre Editor on Time Out, then when he was Film Critic at The Times. He’s a terrific journalist, particularly known for his arresting metaphors. But although he has since taken an MA in theatre direction – an experience he describes as “humbling” – I had no idea if he could make that great escape under the barbed-wire fence separating critics from creators.
I needn’t have worried. The play is strong meat. When two old schoolfriends are reunited in a country house, each with a female partner in tow, a sinister, stalkerish obsession soon surfaces. The house is also built over a peculiar, disused well, perhaps haunted – the well is, as I said to James, his Chekhovian gun. (I knew he would know what I meant.) In other words, once it’s been introduced in Act One, you can be sure it will be used come Act Three. And how!
None of the plot devices and film noir tropes is startlingly original, something that has occasioned a couple of (to me) mysteriously negative reviews from online arts review sites. But it doesn’t matter; it’s not the point. As James said to me, “Film has borrowed from theatre for so long, I felt it was time for theatre to steal from film. The plot is just the McGuffin that keeps you along the linear narrative track, but really it’s about trust, and betrayal, and emotional crisis.”
James Christopher’s journalistic love of metaphor shines through in his stage writing. To take but one instance, the profession of the protagonist, Charlie, is picture framing. As he talks about the painstaking process of framing, with its multiple layers of varnish and gilding, he’s really talking about himself, about how his inner self has been varnished and gilded and eventually obscured, until he is all frame and no substance.
But though Charlie’s Dark Angel is similarly multi-layered (James says it took five months of “agony” to write), it is also splendidly pacey, particularly in the shorter, post-interval final act, with ping-pong dialogue pricked by the odd flight of fancy. Plaudits also go to the four fine actors who bring the production to life. The one theatre neophyte, Phoebe Pryce, maintained such a consistent accent as a young Ukrainian artist/Manic Pixie Dream Girl that I asked James if she were actually foreign. He looked at me as if I was mad.
“That’s Jonathan Pryce’s daughter,” he said. “We were lucky to catch her just in time. After this she is acting with her father in The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe.”
To tell you more about the production would be to spoil it. I was on the edge of my seat for much of it. (And not just because the benches are rather small.) Two days later, I am still reliving and savouring moments. It’s sexy, and edgy, and there’s a lurking menace bubbling constantly under its characters’ urbane surface, as in the aforementioned well. I’ve been to a lot of West End theatre in the last couple of years, and this was one of my favourite nights out: quite a surprise from a first-time writer/director in a small pub theatre.
For info about Charlie’s Dark Angel and to book tickets, click here.