I am back at Paradise in the Vault after lunch for more youth theatre. MPG Theatre are from Gloucestershire and they are led by Michael Greenman, who directs this new, devised Fringe production, “The Black Dahlia.” Its subject – the unsolved 1947 murder of a twenty-two-year-old Hollywood waitress – is ambitiously bleak to assign to a cast of teenagers. The result is by and large an oddity and a puzzle, a strangely weighted overview of the Black Dahlia casefile that is redeemed by some stylistically smart noir touches.
It is probably wise to let this play settle for a couple more days before seeing it. Greenman optimistically chooses to make his cast perform “The Black Dahlia” with American accents. Some of them are still mumbling and slurring a little tipsily. The performers are occasionally too quiet and at times the audience sits frozen, listening with anxious care. An important signal is evidently missed at the play’s ending and, to the incredulity to the audience, the cast fail to materialise. We wistfully applaud a bare stage. Nonetheless, I think that we are given enough to be able to picture what this show will look like once it is ready. It is this premonition of a finished show that I shall henceforth review.
Elizabeth Short was renamed “The Black Dahlia” by newspapers that were seeking to sprinkle stardust over her murder. Her body was found naked and severed at the hip in a Los Angeles park. A gigantic smile had been hacked across her face, from the corners of her lips to her earlobes, and her extracted intestines had been tucked neatly under her buttocks. Out of a long list of suspects, this play picks only one of them, Robert M. “Red” Manley, as a goer and it runs with him. Detective Captain Jack Donahue (a real historical personage) and his partner Alma Callahan (a fictional one) odyssey through the Los Angeles underworld in search of the killer.
The historical record is soon thoroughly mangled. Manley had died in 1986, having never been convicted of anything in association with Short’s death, and yet this play decides to simply delete these facts. At points of greater interest, however, its powers of invention are inexplicably absent. The play will remain as mute as Short’s corpse over her mysterious disappearance during the days prior to her death. If this play is hollow in certain, critical places, it is jam-packed in others. We are granted complete access to Short’s family home and it is implied that her mother was a viable suspect. But, unless I have missed something, the play simultaneously confirms that Short’s mother was three thousand miles away in Boston during the murder.
The script can still locate some of the gruff eloquence of Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled prose. Donahue fumes that the murderer wants everybody in the city to be singing his song; he elsewhere threatens to lean across and “snatch” the life out of one suspect. He is evoked with that charisma and flintiness that is mandatory for any noir detective. Even so, his pig-headiness makes for something more curious – a character in freefall, who is effectual only as an image. He is almost deliberatively moronic and his one ploy is to menace the suspects until something gives. A young actor’s bold and well-judged performance here proves to be the sharp knife that this play is looking for in the fight.