Double Indemnity

James M Cain, adapted for the stage by David Joss Buckley
Nottingham Playhouse
(2004)

We've all seen the TV adverts, asking whether you've been involved in an accident that wasn't your fault. If so, someone's got to pay - preferably through the nose.

In these days of "they sin, you win", James M Cain's seedy tale about a couple trying to get the better of an insurance company doesn't have the same impact as when it was written nearly 70 years ago. But it's a fascinating look at how the compensation culture started in the days when crime really didn't pay.

Cain is widely regarded as one of the leaders of the hard-boiled, pulp fiction or crime noir genre which was characterised by its stark, harsh reality. Crime was his speciality but he didn't write about detectives. Nor did his material appear in the pulps - cheap fiction magazines printed on rough paper.

Don't for one minute imagine this version of Double Indemnity is anything like the 1944 film version with Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G Robinson. This is David Joss Buckley's take on the story and sticks closely to Cain's book. The language is slick, penetrating and to the point.

Insurance agent Walter Huff is seduced by Phyllis Nirdlinger into killing her husband so they can collect the insurance money and drive off into the sunset. Some companies paid out double the benefit for railroad-related deaths because they were rare, which is where the title comes from. Insurance bosses felt it was a good PR move and would outweigh the cost of paying out on the few claims that were made.

The railroad is an integral part of the action, as illustrated by the track running down the middle of the stage. Mark Bailey's set is exceptional as the lower part serves as a living room and a car as well as a train while the top becomes an insurance office, the rear carriage of the train and even a boat.

Huff is excellently portrayed by Hywel Simons. Perhaps he's not pushy enough for an insurance agent but he winds up the tension when you wonder whether he and Phyllis have after all committed the perfect murder.

Lucy Cohu (Phyllis) doesn't come over as a seductress who Huff would risk everything for. However, when she's snared him she becomes a cold, calculating psychopath who'll do anything to get her way.

The show is almost stolen by Lou Hirsch, the claims adjustor who sets out to prove that the death of Herbert Nirdlinger (Robin Bowerman) was no accident. His understated, matter-of-fact role is a fresh contrast from the exceptionally strong characters around him.

Kit Lane's video design seems baffling at first, with ethereal shapes mysteriously appearing and disappearing. But all becomes clear towards the end without confusing the simple plot.

The Playhouse's artistic director Giles Croft has come up with a sound offering, perhaps not with quite as much pace as Cain intended and with a few moments when the action doesn't hold your attention. On the whole, though, it's a clever production and you won't be calling for compensation on your way out.

"Double Indemnity" runs until April 3rd

Reviewer: Steve Orme