It’s always exciting when Australia gets a new homebred musical like The Detective’s Handbook. It’s a rare and special treat in a landscape of mass-produced shows imported from overseas to witness something new and fresh, particularly when young Australian talent like Ian Ferrington and Olga Solar write it.
The Hayes Theatre Co has previously given the opportunity for well-loved Australian works to receive new life in the revival of James Millar and Peter Rutherford’s song cycle LoveBites, the musical featuring the songs of The Whitlams Truth, Beauty, and a Picture of You, and the extremely well received production of Nick Enright and Max Lambert’s Miracle City in 2014.
By partnering with New Musicals Australia to give a platform to emerging artists to create and develop new work, it’s the audience who wins by getting to experience The Detective’s Handbook. It’s worth seeing merely to support and champion young artists producing new Australian work. But it’s also a charming, clever and funny musical that crosses genres with its own distinctive voice, forging a unique place in the local musical theatre landscape.
A monochromatic set by James Browne that appears to be just white lines painted haphazardly over a black backdrop immediately transports us to the chiaroscuro era of detective films in the 1950s once it’s accentuated by Sian James-Holland’s lighting. Solar ensures that at least a hint of jazz is in every scene, and in the landscape of Michael Tyack’s capable music direction, it’s the final touch that makes everything onstage feel like a real old school detective movie.
Detective Frank Thompson (Justin Smith) enters shrouded in shadow, and the opening number is not so much a song as it is spoken word-meets-rap, accompanied by sultry jazz tunes. Smith’s steady rhyming is counterbalanced by Rob Johnson as Detective Jimmy Hartman, the young new detective on the block who bursts through the door with a more traditionally sung musical ingénue style. Meet the odd couple.
Hartman, brimming with youthful optimism, is a stickler for the rules. Thompson is his cynical, drunkard superior. Much to Thompson’s dismay, Hartman is assigned to be his new partner to solve the murder of two policemen. The story is simple enough, with a few amusing and unexpected plot twists along the way as our new dynamic duo searches for clues to solve the case.
The show is a cleverly constructed parody of an overdone genre, balancing light-hearted humour, heightened melodrama and the occasional touch of sincerity. The cast, under director Jonathan Biggins, have solid comic chops and surprisingly it’s the more sombre and traditional musical theatre moment moments like Smith’s solo ‘The Old Guy’ which end up feeling undercooked. Despite a few unfocused moments in the beginning, after a while the vision becomes clear and the consequent action-fuelled, comedic show finds its charming appeal.
Ferrington’s book and smart lyrics are filled with shrewd witticisms. Coupled with Solar’s smooth jazz music, they have hit on a new and strangely perfect combination from which to sculpt this show’s particular musical vocabulary. The rap-inspired song structures and lyrics are an interesting choice, and at first the unexpected rhythm takes a moment to settle into the ear. But once it’s picked up motion, it seems like a genius way to handle this genre. The laid back rhythm of the clever lyrics feels authentic to the detective genre, adopting that calm yet inherently suspenseful atmosphere of many of the classic film noir detective movies.
If Ferrington’s lyrics are the brains of the show then Solar’s music is the guts, sultry and cool and a little melancholy. The jazz themes in her score bridge the gap between rap and more traditional musical theatre numbers, keeping the sound cohesive – though occasionally the songs end abruptly and could do with a little more resolution.
Smith and Johnson are impressive at the centre of the production and they lead a deep bench of seasoned performers turning in engaging performances, no matter how small and silly the role. Coin’s Chief of Police is stern and mockable; Lara Mulcahy as a police officer and a Polish matchmaker/deli owner is hilarious; Christopher Horsey both choreographs and plays a worker-bee police officer who has some great moments to show off his impressive tap skills.
It’s Sheridan Harbridge that gives the standout performance here amongst a very talented cast. She plays three separate femmes fatale, bringing a unique flair and nuance to each role: the all-knowing secretary; the unnerving but precise mortician; and the kind but knowing bar owner. She brings depth to each of these characters, no matter how comic her performance, and that’s the magic of her performance.
The Detective’s Handbook offers to audiences great hope for the future of Australian musical theatre. New voices like these deserve the chance to be heard. Ferrington and Solar have created a charming show with a sound unlike any other local show. With tap dancing, rap, jazz, murder mystery, femmes fatale and comedy galore, there is something for everyone to enjoy – so go support Australian musical theatre and go see this delightful show.