The Postman Always Rings Twice

Published April 17, 2008

Last night at the Playhouse theatre, Val Kilmer added his name to the ever-growing list of Hollywood A-listers travelling to London’s West End to ply their trade. Kilmer plays drifter Frank Chambers in Andrew Rattenbury’s stage adaptation of James M Cain’s benchmark American noir novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Matthew Amer went along to see whether Top Gun’s Iceman was a cool character on stage…

Few star names will have made their first foray onto the West End stage by being thrown out of the back of truck, but such is the entrance made by Val Kilmer’s Frank, a notorious drifter with a colourful past. Dressed in a mismatch of jeans, jacket and hat, like a bedraggled travelling salesman he strolls into the desert diner owned by Nick and Cora Papadakis. The exterior of the roadside café, designed by Bunny Christie, portrays a sand-blasted, dust-encrusted, barely-frequented establishment; the occasional burst of smoke from a vent is the most action the diner sees. The inside too has a washed-out feel, as if its life-force has been sucked out.

Cora, the siren in a smock played by Charlotte Emmerson, is as depressed as the diner’s tablecloths. A marriage to Nick had been her way out of a desperate previous life, but now she is trapped with a man she does not love, but who dotes on her, ‘his little dove’. After embarking on a passionate, very physical affair with Frank, who takes employment at the diner to be close to Cora, the pair plot Nick’s murder. All does not go to plan and the lovers find themselves with their necks dangerously near a lurking hangman’s noose.

Kilmer has a reputation for being one of Hollywood’s more temperamental stars, clashing with co-stars and directors in the past. If the rumours are to be believed, he also enjoyed discussions with The Postman Always Rings Twice director Lucy Bailey about the portrayal of Nick’s character. Joseph Alessi plays the Greek immigrant striving to build a successful business as a naïve husband who believes women are for sex and cooking. Though his views may be disagreeable, his heart is always in the right place and the balding husband, who seemingly just wants love and acceptance, doesn’t see what is happening before him. The adaptable Alessi also takes to the stage as the endearingly conniving defence lawyer Katz, on whose rather rule-bending view of the American justice system the fates of Frank and Cora rely.

Charlotte Emmerson, who, like Alessi, was in the original cast of the West Yorkshire Playhouse production, manages to ooze sex appeal in even the most dour of waitressing attire. Emmerson, who has previously been seen in The Coast Of Utopia, The Good Hope, The Cherry Orchard (National theatre) and Baby Doll (Albery), keeps Cora teetering on the boundary of Lady Macbeth country without ever placing more than a little toe over the line.

As the other half of the infatuated lovers, Kilmer’s Frank is both manipulative and manipulated, moving from brash alpha male to quiveringly frightened schoolboy in the course of the evening. The jaw may not be quite so chiselled these days, but the shock of highlighted hair sported by Kilmer puts one in the mind of his Top Gun days. In fact, the setting for The Postman Always Rings Twice is very close to where Kilmer grew up, before making his name in films such as The Doors, True Romance, Willow and Heat.

Almost as important to the production as the actors is Nick’s ever present car. Perched atop Bunny Christie’s two tier set, the open top, which has a couple of key parts to play, looms over the action for much of the performance before proving its adaptability and taking the form of interrogation spotlights later in proceedings.

Lucy Bailey, who most recently directed Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s The Night Season at the National’s Cottesloe theatre, presides over the tense thriller, which sees the lines between rape and consenting sex blurred, clothes ripped off, punches thrown and people killed as the classic noir tale builds to its conclusion.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is currently booking at the Playhouse until July 30.