The road to hell is paved with good intentions. If not quite hell, Blacklight Productions well intentioned “Fallen Angels,” lands in something of a purgatorial limbo. Purporting to explore class and gender by way of a visual aesthetic reminiscent of silent movies, this ambitious take on Noel Coward’s comedy sees its best laid plans not only misfire, they completely backfire. An ambitious production that delivers too few laughs with too little style, and even less substance, “Fallen Angels” has something to offer to a modern audience, if only it knew it.
Eventually produced in 1925 having first been denied a licence, “Fallen Angels” caused enough of a stir to see its English audiences requiring a mild whiff of smelling salts when it first appeared. Its then morally debauched tale of two bored women married to two insufferably boring husbands offended the moral upper class for reflecting their own world back to them. One where both women contemplate committing adultery with a former lover they each enjoyed some forbidden, pre-marital nookie with seven years previous. With their gullible husbands golfing for the weekend, the Brooks-bobbed Julia and platinum blonde Jane flirt with desire over champagne and endless phone calls while the maid serves dinner. Unexpected arguments lead to unexpected revelations as a European sensibility clashes with English refinement, no Brexit pun intended. And if it all leads exactly to where everyone suspects it will, it might not take quite the route everyone expected.
Despite her professed intentions, director Cliodhna McAllister proves somewhat lightweight when it comes to exploring class and gender. From snobs and their servants who see everything, to married males whose petty arrogance leaves them ignorant of their wives real needs, Coward already had all the bases covered and nothing new is added, highlighted, or revealed. Under McAllister's guidance Coward’s dialogue is delivered at such a plodding pace it resembles a poorly recorded audiobook in Received Pronunciation, with much of Coward’s exquisite comic timing getting lost in forced and unnatural delivery. Moments which might aspire to Victorian points, or tableaux moments of intensity, but which leave “Fallen Angels” compositionally slack. As does an over reliance on staring at a camera lens that isn’t there. Which doesn’t evoke silent movies so much as become an unimaginative one trick pony that exhausts itself pretty quickly, leaving those moments when it could have shined feeling tarnished for having become predictable and overdone.
If set and costume designer, Henrique Caliento, makes some brave plays, they don’t really come off and ultimately prove counter productive. Caliento’s realist set, split into various spaces, looks less 1920s silent movie and more 1960s Hammer Horror mansion. One with the Addams Family’s richer cousins in residence. Indeed, had the production followed through with its Addams Family cartoon aesthetic it might have opened some interesting possibilities. But the cartoonish and credible clash as Caliento’s grey skinned beings in cliched costumes swan about in his detailed set. Indeed, whatever notion of the silent movie era Caliento is trying to evoke isn’t at all clear, nor particularly clear why he’s even doing so at all.
All of which leaves a hard working cast swimming valiantly against the current. Kit Thompson’s boyishly imbecilic Fred, and Gavan O’Connor Duffy’s booming baritone William, both work hard to make their caricature of characters compelling, with William sounding strikingly impressive at times. Louis Deslis as an overacting French lover dressed like an extra from Guys and Dolls, and Sabhbh McLoughlin as the all knowing, barely bemused maid, do well with what little they have, with McLoughlin looking impressively present at times. Most impressive of all, however, are Aoife Honohan as the decadent Julia and Hannah Osborne as the ditzy Jane. One of the most important qualities of silent era sirens such as Louise Brooks, Colleen Moore or Clara Bow was their ability to light up the screen even when the production was far poorer than they were. As is the case here for a magnetic Honohan and compelling Osborne, who both shine showing hints of star quality and presence.
“Fallen Angels” is encompassed in a problematic design aesthetic that swallows everything around it, emphasising itself over both play and performance with no one really winning. A look that’s never as clear nor as clever as it could have been, even if occassionally well executed in places. Yet Blacklight Productions are a relatively new company and you cannot but admire the scale of their ambition. There’s certainly something going on, suggesting we haven’t seen the best, or heard the last, of McAllister and Caliento who look like they might have something serious to offer. And we certainly haven’t heard the last of Aoife Honohan or Hannah Osborne, who both look like they could very well be going places.
“Fallen Angels” by Noel Coward, presented by Blacklight Productions, runs at Smock Alley until March 23.
For more information, visit Smock Alley Theatre.