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Review: America’s No.1 Detective Agency by Fatale Femme

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It’s not often one runs into theatre inspired by film noir, and much less a film noir parody. New company Fatale Femme boldly bursts onto the scene to fill just that gap with a bold original script that pays both homage to the genre while putting a new spin on it.

Set in the golden state of Los Angeles and the city of stars, we’re introduced to our protagonist – America’s former No.1 detective Vivian O’Connell (Fleur De Wit). Turning the trope of the middle-aged, ruggedly male detective on its head, Vivian is a chainsmoker and ruthless private investigator who will do anything (and anyone) to get the information she needs. Betrayed by Bobby Munroe (Hamish Adams-Cairns), Vivian and her partner Joey Vincent (Siobhan Cha Cha) have since fallen from grace, losing all the best cases to him and drowning in parking tickets and bills. Enter young wannabe starlet Betty Channing (Alex Hinson), a Southern Belle-type from Oklahoma who’s been receiving letters from some unsavoury characters, and Vivian and Joey are forced to take on the less than ideal case. But what initially appears to be a simple game of catch the culprit leads to a far more complicated plot than Vivian could ever have imagined, and could endanger the lives of everyone involved, including her own.

America’s No.1 Detective Agency is armed with a delightfully dark script with a plot that could well be from a noir classic from the 40s. Although chock full of your favourite character archetypes, writer Liv Hunterson cleverly puts a spin on most of them. The mysterious client (in an unhappy relationship, of course) with a secret is initially less a femme fatale than a blonde airhead, while the multiple old and new flames are rather unusually emasculated men, with Vivian quite literally wearing the pants in the company. Although marketed as a parody, the play more accurately, would be a loving homage to the genre with a few choice jokes thrown into the mix. A running joke throughout the play for example, gives characters grief and frustration as they continually discover that each and every door is faulty, while a foppish foreigner continually fails to achieve heroism no matter how hard he tries.

America’s No.1 Detective Agency lacks laugh out loud humour in that it never outright makes fun of the genre or genre tropes, and its plot is far too serious and has too many stakes to truly relax at. But if one looks at it not as a parody but as almost a love letter and attempt to recreate film noir for the stage in a more lighthearted style, then it succeeds immensely in delivering on the ambience and atmosphere. Much of the play takes place in dimly lit offices and shady bars, with a strangely smoky environment to boot, along with a a live band providing sound effects and song to really set the mood (Danny Wallington on keys, Justin Tambini on drums, which double as gunshots, and Isabella Bassett singing delightfully retro songs). The entire female cast even joins in a short musical sequence at one point, snapping their fingers and doo-wopping away.

Committing entirely to their roles, the capable cast more than brings out the script’s wit and inherent joy it takes in playing up noir tropes. As a main character, Fleur de Wit nails Vivian’s aloof and cool attitude, while Siobhan Cha Cha balances her character with equal parts hotheaded rookie and charming enthusiasm and devotion to Vivian, making them a fearsome team to behold onstage. Hamish Adams-Cairns as Bobby Munrow is a lovable schmuck to witness while Oliver-David Harrison acts as a genuinely threatening foil as crazed Italian mob boss Larry Siegeli. Iain Gibbons brings plenty of humour to the table as the hapless Teddy Worthington, his defiant insistence on his masculinity poised to generate laughs, while Alex Hinson undoubtedly embodies the star power she attempts to portray onstage, managing to give her character both a skittish naivete and gravity as required.

America’s No.1 Detective Agency truly shines when it allows itself to have fun, take creative risks and use interesting visuals, such as a fantastic driving scene with Iain Gibbons and Alex Hinson, as cast members dress her in the requisite Hollywood headscarf, flapping it to create the impression of wind while both actors shudder as if in an actual car. One wishes that the team would have included even more of these whimsical stage tricks to give it more of a parodic edge, but even in its current state, Fatale Femme has crafted a deliciously entertaining debut piece of theatre that they should be proud of, acting as a worthy tribute to the glorious yesteryears of noir Hollywood.

America’s No. 1 Detective Agency plays from 31st July – 7th August at the Drayton Arms Pub. Tickets available here

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