The Third Man, Menier Chocolate Factory, 2023
Photo: Manuel Harlan
  • Theatre, Musicals

The Third Man

Dreadful, pointless musical desecration of the film noir masterpiece


Time Out says

There is no shortage of musicals that have tried to cash in on a famous film. Currently in the West End we’ve got ‘The Lion King’, ‘Frozen’, ‘Back to the Future’, ‘Mrs Doubtfire’ and ‘Groundhog Day’. But there’s a big difference between those adaptations and this piece by Don Black, Christopher Hampton and George Fenton, directed by Trevor Nunn, which is that those cash-grabs are upfront about the reason for their existence (viz. grabbing cash). The tragedy of ‘The Third Man’ – not in the West End but in the 200-odd seat Menier Chocolate Factory – is that it aspires to artistry and so fails all the more.

It has the unenviable quality of a musical that flopped in the ’80s and is now being revived in a curio of a production just to work out if it really was as bad as everyone remembers. Except it’s brand new, and it’s genuinely one of the worst musicals I’ve ever seen.

It starts, obviously, with variations on the famous zither theme from the impeccable 1949 Carol Reed/Graham Greene film while an inexplicably large ensemble of Austrian poor sing about how hard life is in Vienna after the war. Then the whole thing unfolds flaccidly and forgettably: double-crossing in quartered Vienna as protagonist Holly Martins tries to seek down his old friend Harry Lime who either is or isn’t dead. Sam Underwood’s Martins is skittish, paranoid, it’s a decent performance, as is Natalie Dunne as cold love interest Anna. The rest of the cast doesn’t have much to work with.

This creative team has worked on some of the most famous musicals of all time – Nunn directed ‘Les Mis’ and ‘Cats’, Black and Hampton co-wrote ‘Sunset Boulevard’ – and yet it’s like they have complete amnesia about what a musical actually is; that there needs to be a reason for a song to happen; indeed that there actually need to be songs in the first place.

Fenton, known for his film and TV music, furnishes the show with an unceasing and permanently bland score, vaguely gesturing towards klezmer, which keeps forgetting to break into song. When a song does randomly and pointlessly appear, it’s set to Don Black’s hokey lyrics with rhymes visible from space (‘At times he drove me mad, but he was the truest friend, the best I ever had’). 

Where the black and white film used the limits of monochrome to unforgettable effect, making the shadows in ravaged Vienna characters as much as Harry and Holly, Emma Chapman’s lighting and Paul Farnsworth’s costumes make this production monochrome too – grey suits, white lights – but to no effect other than imitation.

There is nothing to justify its existence on stage. Pointless and boring, the best thing about ‘The Third Man’ is the fact that it won’t make the slightest bit of difference to the legacy of the film. And in case anyone thinks it’s harsh to judge the musical by the standards of the film, well it’s kinder than judging the show on its own terms. You expect so much more from the creative team who have around 220 years of professional experience between them. May it sink into the Viennese sewers, with the body of Harry Lime, where they both belong.


£49.50-£55. Runs 2hr 30min
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