Review: America’s Number One Detective Agency at the Drayton Arms

Written by Liv Hunterson and directed by Anna Marshall, Fatale Femme’s debut production America’s Number One Detective Agency is an enjoyably silly and suitably atmospheric – if a little more convoluted than feels strictly necessary – homage to the film noir genre.

Our heroine Vivian O’Connell (Fleur De Wit) is fighting to reclaim her crown as America’s top private detective, recently lost to her ex-boyfriend Bobby (Hamish Adams-Cairns) in a high profile case. But he gets all the best clients these days, so Vivian and her partner Joey (Siobhan Cha Cha) are reduced to helping out irritatingly perky aspiring actress Betty Channing (Alex Hinson), who seems to have acquired a stalker. Throw in a deranged gangster (Oliver David-Harrison), a dapper English gent (Iain Gibbons), and something about a gorilla(?), and the stage is set for a mystery caper that will take the gang all the way to Las Vegas. But will they all make it out alive…?

Arriving at the theatre is like stepping into an early 20th century jazz club, with a live band and singer playing in the corner while the actors lurk in the shadows, smoking and looking moody. The musical accompaniment works particularly well in maintaining the film noir atmosphere throughout the play, with singer Isabella Bassett taking on a very different role on occasion as Betty’s thuggish ex-husband, Freddie.

Under the direction of Anna Marshall, the cast of six give good individual performances but also work very well as an ensemble, keeping the action moving at a rapid pace throughout. (If anything it’s all a bit too fast – in such a complex plot where every detail counts, it’s easy to blink and miss something important.) Even when not directly involved in a scene the actors all remain on stage, either as secondary characters or as part of the set; the moment in the car is particularly well executed. I’m still not 100% sure if the problem with the door was part of the script or a set malfunction, but if it was the latter, then the cast are also to be congratulated on smoothly working around a frustrating technical glitch and turning it into a running gag.

With an even male/female split in the cast, it’s refreshing to see the women taking charge and driving the story forward, while the men are busy pining for lost lovers, cowering under tables and getting punched in the face. Fleur De Wit’s Vivian is a feisty heroine, keeping her cool despite the chaos unfolding around her, with strong support from Siobhan Cha Cha as Vivian’s trusty associate Joey, and Alex Hinson as Betty, the Hollywood starlet with hidden depths. Meanwhile the three men provide some of the best comedy moments, particularly Iain Gibbons as Teddy, who just can’t help putting himself in harm’s way whenever he feels a lady’s honour needs defending – even though the ladies are more than capable of taking care of themselves.

America’s Number One Detective Agency is good fun, particularly for fans of the film noir genre; it certainly looks and sounds the part. The plot could benefit from being a little less complex, or the pace of the production taken down just a touch so the audience can keep up with the various twists and turns (and jokes). That said, this is still a very entertaining show, and a promising debut from Fatale Femme.

America’s Number One Detective Agency returns to the Drayton Arms on 6th and 7th August.

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