The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 4th October, 2021
The Classic Thriller Company is back on the road with this new version of the creaky old play by John Willard from 1922, with an adapted script by Kneehigh’s Carl Grose. Grose moves the action forward to post-WW2, post-independence of India. The language has been juiced up to include words like ‘bugger’ and ‘shit’—while I suppose people used such vocabulary back in the day in the real world, it seems at odds in the cosy period piece milieu of the stage thriller.
The premise is delicious. A lonely mansion on a moor on a stormy night, a group of people gathering for the reading of a will, an escaped lunatic on the prowl…
Leading the troupe is international star Britt Ekland, playing against type as dowdy housekeeper, Mrs Pleasant. Ekland is marvellous, at times creepy, at others funny—much like the play as a whole, in fact. She is joined by a strong cast, including Marti Webb as a strait-laced matronly type who loosens up when she gives up being teetotal; Gary Webster as the brash jack-the-lad boxer Harry; Ben Nealon as Charlie, an overbearing actor sporting the highest-waisted trousers this side of Simon Cowell; Eric Carte credibly authoritative as Crosby the lawyer; Tracy Shaw as Annabelle, the heroine, combining strength and vulnerability; and Priyasasha Kumari as an appealing Indian princess. They’re a pretty tight ensemble, breathing life into what could be little more than stock characters, and I’m particularly impressed by Antony Costa as the bumbling Paul Jones. Costa warms to his role; in fact, the play takes a while to bed in, but once all the elements are in place, suspense and humour vie for dominance in this effective, old-school thriller.
Roy Marsden’s direction teases us with suspense, gives us a couple of good jump scares, contrasting the play’s lighter moments with its darker aspects and tensions. Themes emerge of the past affecting the present: the old man’s will from twenty years ago is the catalyst for the action; a trauma in Annabelle’s childhood threatens to unsettle her; the desire to restore what was plundered from a previously colonised country; and most strongly, the PTSD suffered by those who fought in the War. Only the escaped lunatic, it seems, has no back story to explain his excessive behaviour!
The substantial set (designed by takis) adds to the oppressive atmosphere, and I especially like the framed pictures of single eyes that cover the walls of Annabelle’s bedroom. Chris Davey’s lighting design adds to the tension, while Dan Sansom’s sound design can be a little intrusive, it does provide a couple of startling moments. And they need to go easy on the dry ice at curtain up!
On the whole, this is a gripping, old-fashioned evening at the theatre, proving that a play originally produced almost a century ago still has the power to thrill and entertain, and it makes a refreshing change from the back-to-back musicals on offer at the moment!
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 20th February, 2017
Formerly the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, the Classic Thriller Theatre Company hopes to emulate its earlier success by expanding the range of writers it draws upon, and so we have this adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel, delivered in the company’s solid and classy style.
I don’t know if it exists in the book, never having read it, but this version, by Simon Brett and Anthony Lampard, uses the device of alternating scenes of the police investigation with flashbacks leading up to the brutal murder of the Coverdale family. Past and present collide and keep us hooked on the developing mystery.
Sophie Ward is excellent as the dowdy housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, hiding what to her is a terrible secret. As the detectives, Vetch and Challoner, Andrew Lancel and Ben Nealon exude an air of easy professionalism. Mark Wynter amuses as the smug patriarch George Coverdale, while Rosie Thomson as his wife is the life and soul of the household. Joshua Price mills around as the bookish, oddball son, and Jennifer Sims brings emotional depth to her role of Melinda, the daughter home from university. We know the family is doomed – it’s a matter of when and by whom that keeps us intrigued. They’re all so terribly middle-class, calling each other ‘darling’ all the time, that we perhaps don’t much care about them as individuals. Rather our sympathy lies elsewhere – but that would be telling.
The usually glamorous Shirley Anne Field dresses down as cleaner Mrs Baalham, and Deborah Grant muttons up as outlandish postmistress and religious crank, Joan Smith. Revelation of the night (apart from the whodunit) is former Blue singer Antony Costa delivering a nice line in character acting as the reformed criminal and gardener, Rodger Meadows.
Julie Godfrey’s set epitomises the country house mystery, but it also communicates a message about the permanence of the class system – this is a story with class, in more ways than one. Director Roy Marsden keeps the action flowing seamlessly between the two timelines, using Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design to mark when we are, as well as to highlight certain dramatic moments.
It all makes up for a solid and reliable piece of entertainment, excellently presented. We may guess who is responsible, but when the murder scene finally arrives it is no less shocking. Pace and tone are handled expertly to deliver the goods.
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is dead; long live the Classic Thriller Theatre Company!