Graham Greene’s thrilling film noir, The Third Man has in the past been voted the greatest British film of all time. To adapt it for the stage seems like a no-brainer, to also turn it in to a musical was perhaps a riskier move. With a stellar creative team, including Don Black and Christopher Hampton (book and lyrics) and George Fenton (music) with Trevor Nunn at the helm as director, this new production at Menier Chocolate Factory certainly seems to have all the right ingredients.
Black and Hampton’s book closely follows the story of the film; with Holly Martins arriving in post-war Vienna at the invitation of his best friend Harry. His first stop, however, is Harry’s funeral and suspicious about the circumstances of his friend’s death Holly enlists the help of Harry’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Natalie Dunne) and Major Calloway (Edward Baker-Duly) to try and get to the bottom of things.
Harry, it turns out, was a criminal. Responsible for thousands of deaths selling watered down penicillin. This leaves Holly desperately conflicted, and Sam Underwood does a remarkable job of portraying just how broken the character is by the time The Third Man reaches its gripping conclusion.
The original soundtrack of the film was in fact extremely popular, and launched several music careers, so perhaps the decision to make this a musical is less surprising than it first appears. George Fenton’s music has an old fashioned European charm to it, you won’t find any big song and dance numbers, aside from a brief showstopper at the Casanova Club, but it does pay homage to the film’s original score.
In the second act in particular, there are moments when it feels like the songs are slowing down the natural storytelling. When the ‘moving dots’ speech is delivered atop Vienna’s Ferris wheel, it’s followed by a song that seems out of place in the context of the storytelling, and there are a couple more moments like this before we reach the end.
Paul Farnsworth’s set design is magnificent, the entire space transformed into war-torn Vienna, with a subtly raked stage creating a nod to the ‘dutch’ camera angles used in the film. The similarities don’t end there, a combination of the set, costumes and Emma Chapman’s lighting design creates the sense you’re watching a live play in black and white.
Trevor Nunn’s meticulous direction creates an undeniable air of suspense throughout, even those familiar with the plot might start to wonder if things are going to take an unexpected turn. Nunn also uses the small space and relatively large company to bring to life the intrigue and drama.
It’s debatable whether this version of The Third Man needed to be a musical, perhaps a straight stage adaptation might have worked better in places. But the music is good, and fans of the film will not be disappointed. Anyone coming to this story for the first time will undoubtedly be as captivated by it as cinema goers were in 1949.
The Third Man is at Menier Chocolate Factory until 9th September 2023.