And now it’s here in the West End. Not an update, not even an adaptation really. Just the screenplay served up on stage. Very, very little has been done to address how the material might work in a theatrical setting. The biggest change by far is the reinstatement of writer James Dearden’s original ending. Alex was supposed to kill herself at the end of the movie, implicating Michael Douglas’ philandering New York lawyer Dan in her death. It was downbeat, bleak, made much more sense from a psychological perspective (at least within the universe of the movie), and – famously – went down like a lead balloon with audiences during test screenings. So a new ending was shot, in which Anne Archer’s betrayed wife got to blow the bitch away in the bathtub, although evidently neither Lyne nor Dearden were ever particularly pleased with it.
Given all that, it’s possible to see why Dearden might want to revisit the material, if rather harder to grasp what might be in it for anyone else. And because it follows the film so closely (up until the end at least), it’s impossible not to play the scene-by-scene comparison game and to find Trevor Nunn’s stage version wanting. For one thing, the attraction – kind of a crucial element – is pretty much absent. The early flirtation between Mark Bazeley’s Dan and Natascha McElhone’s striking, stylish business woman, Alex, is one of the better realised scenes, but it still doesn’t suggest the kind of heat that would make Dan risk so much so quickly. There’s also very little sex, bar a bit of heavy petting in an elevator: there’s no sweaty bed-sheet action, Bazeley doesn’t get to do that awkward trouser dance round Alex’s glamorous Manhattan loft and her kitchen sink, perhaps mercifully, remains buttock-free
The production is also curiously difficult to locate in time. A decision has clearly been taken not to set the thing in the 1980s. No-one sports a poodle perm, no one smokes, and the clothes are contemporary. But it’s a very odd kind of update. There are a couple of references to email and even one mention of Facebook, but no one has an iPad, no one sends a text, even the iPhones have the tinny rings of much older mobiles. Hardly any attempt has been made to explore the role the internet might play in Alex’s insertion of herself into Dan’s life – the one thing that might have given this production an edge of interest, instead it inhabits a sort of weird half-way space, a feeling only enhanced by the fact the characters spend so much time on the phone, calling – or failing to call – one another, having bitty, broken conversations while standing on opposite sides of the stage.
And then there’s the sexual politics. Obviously extramarital affairs were not the preserve of the 1980s, and the film was pretty ugly and reactionary even for its time, but it was reflective of a certain social, urban unease. Here, again, the production doesn’t quite seem to know where to put itself. “Girls like sex as much as boys,” Dan’s sweaty-palmed and recently divorced friend excitedly informs him, as if Sex and the City had never happened (though for all Kristin Davis’s Beth gets to do, it may as well not have done). The suggestion that Alex’s age and childlessness, coupled with the trauma of a past miscarriage, might be the root of her unbalanced behaviour – which is if anything emphasised here – is pretty dizzyingly offensive, regardless of when it’s supposed to be set.
McElhone has a degree of poise and presence as Alex, playing her as a more vulnerable, damaged character than Close did, but if anything her metamorphosis from being a woman rightfully pissed off at Dan’s abandonment to a stabby pixie dream girl is even harder to swallow as a result. Bazeley, meanwhile, just about convinces as a man in too deep; he gets across the character’s spinelessness, but lacks Douglas’ charisma. Occasionally he gets to deliver a few lines of soliloquy/voice-over but these feel as if they’ve been designed to paper over the set changes rather than to offer any psychological insight.
The set changes quite a lot by the way. Sometimes a few moving electric blue panels are used to convey a sense of the city, other sets are more detailed and realist (and fiddly to assemble). There’s also a very large cast for what could well have been played as a two hander, like they’re justifying the high cost of tickets by populating the stage. People are forever strolling purposefully from one side of the set to the other or standing in little whispery huddles that are meant to convey that we are in a “hot new bar” or a busy Manhattan law office.
Nunn seems to give up completely on making the piece theatrically viable towards the end; when Alex makes off with Dan’s daughter and a frantic Beth crashes her car in pursuit, it all happens off-stage, complete with comedy car crash sound effect. The final confrontation between Alex and Dan, in which he’s so incensed he comes close to killing her, plays out as one lumbering clunky fight scene, utterly lacking in momentum. And when the police come for Dan in the concluding moments one of them brings the bloody knife with him in a handy backpack, for the benefit of those who may have dozed off.
In the ending that was originally filmed, Close’s Alex slits her own throat, falling out of frame just as the blood starts to flow, with a few strains of Madame Butterfly playing in the background. Here Nunn has her bathed in red light, wearing a flowing kimono, plunging the knife into her belly, with Callas in full belt. All told, his production has the effect of ridding a thriller of the majority of its thrills (even the bunny boiling is fumbled), stripping the character of Beth of what little agency she ever had and making Lyne’s film feel like an exercise in taste and restraint.
Reviewed for Exeunt