Review: 'The Big Sleep' at Vertigo Theatre

Vicki Trask 

  • OnStage Calgary Critic



It was warm for September; I didn’t need a coat but if I did, I would have turned it up like those 1940s detectives. 

Though I rarely get to see hard-boiled detective novels on stage, I love listening to old radio mysteries so when the opportunity arose to see a classic novel brought to life, I seized my moment. Vertigo Theatre’s production of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (commissioned for their 40th season and adapted for the stage by Aaron Bushkowsky) brought to life the world of 1940s L.A. in an imaginative and captive way. 
I attended their first preview performance on the evening of Saturday September 17th so admittedly there were a few distractions from the audience – directors taking notes, others talking, a light from booth – but I endeavored to lose myself in the night’s production. I think I mostly succeeded.

Overall, I left the theatre with a sense of satisfaction. This is the type of show you have to sit and pay attention to. It’s very wordy and descriptive but there’s action to accompany it so if you miss a single sassy remark, you might not understand why he’s pointing a gun at her. This is a famously complex story, everyone double-crossing everyone else, characters appearing for one scene and then dying. I had to look up the ending on my way home. The production itself was very well put together. 

The set and lighting by Scott Reid worked so well to tell the story. All the moving parts helped to create the scene without distracting or slowing the movement. The actors changing out the set kept the energy up and entertaining throughout the show. Why should you care about how the scene changes worked? Nothing halts a show quite like a bad scene change. Remember that.

Actor Graham Percy plays a hard-boiled, fast-talking, slightly crazed P.I. Phillip Marlowe who narrates his adventures and rarely leaves the stage. I found him appropriately subdued and sassy as he made his way through the maze of characters. Characters like Phillip Marlowe are masks for the audience to wear as they explore this particular world and I thought Mr. Percy did a fantastic job of giving us that perspective.
He first meets The General (portrayed by Stephen Hair who also plays the crotchety Detective Nulty) and his two daughters Vivian and Carmen (Mabelle Carvajal and Jesse Lynn Anderson respectively) who all have their reasons for bringing the Private Dick into their house of secrets and lies. 

From there, we’re introduced to Curt McKinstry’s performance as Joe Brody (and later Rusty Regan) along with his nasally dame Mona Mars (the volumptuous Katerine Fadum) who serve as the funniest pair of clichés ever to walk out of a crime novel. Well done. Of course Mona is married – because why would a happily married couple exist in 1940s crime noir? Casino owner Eddie Mars (played by Joel Cochrane) brings his own sass and brass to the show, appropriately instigating conflict and then slinking off into the night.

Overall a very talented cast who brought an engaging and elusive story to life. 

For Director Craig Hall, I have no real complaints. I found the first act to be well timed and drew me in as a hopeful audience member trying to follow the clues to the next mystery. As act two started, I became restless; the momentum of the scenes just weren’t the same. I felt like the story was moving at a slower pace than its preceding act and as a result, I lost the narration and missed vital information. 

I can only hope that as time goes on, the show continues to grow. Because it is a fantastic piece of drama to watch, I thoroughly enjoyed my time. As I told you, this is an engaging show that makes you sit forward in your seat to fully understand. As long as the senses are focused – and not distracted by someone in the corner writing notes with a flashlight – I think the audiences will have a wonderfully entertaining night of theatre. 

“The Big Sleep” runs until October 16th and if you have a chance, I suggest you head down to Vertigo theatre for their first show of the season. 

Happy 40th Anniversary.