A collection of characters, apparently drawn directly from classic English detective fiction, arrive for a party in an old country house. Among them there is a Rear-Admiral, a lawyer, a pair of "Bright Young Things" , a lady archaeologist, and a flamboyantly eccentric butler who keeps trying to serve up his own cocktail creation, the "Zombie Whammy". There is also Andreas Capodistriou, a smooth talking serpent of a man who demonstrates to each guest in turn that he knows something compromising about them and is intent on blackmailing each one.The act climaxes as each guest, having a reason to want Capodistriou dead, conceals his or her self on the set to lie in wait for the victim, who arrives alone and kneels to perform his evening prayer. As he does so, a collection of sword-wielding hands appear around him. One blade falls, removing his head, and the curtain falls.
Act 2The act opens on an incongruous scene. Policemen in modern dress mingle with the archaically dressed guests. They are investigating the murder that ended the first act. The Rear Admiral sneezes and loses his fake moustache in the process. He reveals that he is actually an actor, and was hired to participate in a role-playing party for the owner of the house, who would act as detective and solve the mystery. It transpires that all of the "guests", and the butler, are also hired actors. The entire affair has been orchestrated in order to murder the man who played "Capodistriou", who in turn is revealed to be Gerry Marshall, a theatrical agent who held the contracts of all the actors. Each actor hated Marshall, but all deny knowing it was him playing Capodistriou. The organizer of the party was apparently Marshall himself. It is up to Inspector Bowden to unravel the tangle of relationships, real and unreal, to unmask the killer.
Perkins, the Butler: James Pellow
Andreas Capodistriou, an oily Levantine: James Murphy
Silas Bazeby: Paul Cleveland
RearAdmiral Knatchbull Folliat; Robert Hannouch
Lady Tremurrain: Ellen Verenieks
Lavinia Hargreaves, a Bright Young Thing: Stephanie Wilson
Roger Dashwood, a Young Man About Town: Thomas Barron
Dame Edith Runcible, an archaeologist: Lillie Collier
Inspector Bowden: Damien Tracy
Sergeant: Andrew Beckett
Written by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Paul Taylor-Mills
Designer - David Shields
Produced by Kyle Vilcins
Him Indoors was in a lather of anticipation - he had seen the original production of this at Her Majesty's Theatre back when God was a boy, and when it was called The Case of the Oily Levantine. Apparently the cast was reasonably stellar for the period, the set was enormous, the production values slick - and it sank like a stone.
I think this production would best be described as "endearingly awful". It did rather smack of a wet afternoon in Frinton-on-Sea watchng the local repertory company die on its arse in front of an audience of about 2 dozen punters, most of whom have only bought a ticket to get in out of the rain for a couple of hours. The play smacks of "repertory company" anyway, with a vast array of parts for people of wildly differing ages. That is no bad thing in itself - being "in rep" was a true apprenticeship which taught you your craft through long hard slog and experience; rehearsing one play during the day and appearing in another during the evenings every week really honed your expertise. You developed your acting muscles and could play the leading man one week and a walk-on with three lines the next. If there wasn't a part for you, you either helped out backstage, manned the box office or took a wildly unsuitable part if nobody else was available. There were a couple of instances of people taking on wildly unsuitable parts in this show.
Whodunnit? is very much a "repertory company play" anyway - the "detective thriller" genre was one of the rep system staples. And this play calls for each person to demonstrate two very distinct acting styles - in the first act, the audience has to be tricked into thinking that they are watching a "period thriller" in the style of the early stories of Agatha Christie, whereas in the second, it becomes apparent that the setting is contemporary. This was actually pulled off very well in this production. What wasn't so successful was that a couple of roles taken by people decades too young to play the parts convincingly, which could do nothing for the credibility of the production or the actors concerned. White makeup plastered all over your hair does not make you look old - it makes you look like someone with white makeup plastered all over your hair. Playing an old person and bounding about the stage like a boisterous puppy is not convincing - just embarassingly amateurish. If you are going to use a walking stick, watch someone who has to use one and observe how they move. Don't just flail it about.
This is a well-crafted and intelligent play, and better production values and considerably better direction would have helped it immensely. The constraints of the set did not help the production but merely showed up its deficiencies. I am not entirely sure that the Director was entirely up to speed with what was needed at several points. Scrutinising the set, I could only make out one reflective surface (the glass of the French windows) when, at one point, every character on stage needs to be looking into one - no mirrors were in evidence, nor shiny silver trays, nor powder compacts. When someone pours a drink, unless it is whisky or port (and most certainly if it is referred to as orange squash), more than an inch of fluid needs to be put in the glass. The "voiceover", which narrates the viewpoint of the murderer, and which must not be identifiable as any member of the cast, was so garbled and obscured that it was supremely difficult to make out what was actually being said. When your entire cast are meant to be holding swords, it looks daft to give one of them a golf club.
James Pellow really rather walks away with the acting honours in a stand-out turn as Perkins the Butler, transmogrifying into an evil old queen much in the style of Derek Jacobi in Vicious. Paul Cleveland as Bazeby showed a complete inability to do anything with his arms - in fact, for at least the first ten minutes of Act 1, I was convinced that, for some reason to do with the plot, he was wearing false arms inside his jacket (he wasn't, but it looked like it). Robert Hannouch, who cannot be out of his 20s, did not make a terribly convincing Old Sea Dog, and wearing a false moustache over a real one is just bizarre. Mr. Hannouch, the Court finds you guilty of putting white makeup in your hair. Likewise, Lily Collier is far, far too young to play Dame Runcible (a role that was taken on Broadway by Hermione Baddely - Mrs. Bridges to you and me - when she must have been well into her 60s). Thomas Barron is smoothly plausible as Roger Dashwood - full marks, Mr. Barron for correct period hair and pencil moustache. And bonus points for wearing calf-length socks; nothing is so "unperiod" as being able to see a bit of white leg over the top of a short sock when a man is sitting down - at least two male cast members guilty of this. Andrew Beckett gives a nice comic turn as the outrageously camp Police Sergeant, but the team is let down badly by Damien Tracey's Inspector Bowden, who looks like he needs a hairbrush, a razor, an ironing board, a needle and thread and a good night's sleep, as well as closer and more detailed direction - at several points I felt he was just wandering aimlessly and rather pointlessly about the stage. Better direction would certainly have helped in the second act which is very wordy and liable to drag for the audience if they are not being visually entertained.
I enjoyed this play, but am afraid that I didn't enjoy this production of it. I stick by my claim of "endearingly awful". It could have been so much better. I wanted it to succeed and be funny and sharp and slick and make me laugh and pack in the punters. As it is, I found it all faintly embarrassing. And I have to take issue with the "programme". One sheet of folded A4 paper inside a cover made of one sheet of folded A4 card does not constitute a programme, in my mind, particularly when a) it covers three plays being performed over a 12-day season, b) it contains nothing but cast and creative team biographies and mentions nothing whatsoever about the plays, their production histories and so on and c) it costs £2. I've had more informative bus tickets and feel somewhat ripped off.