Tag Archives: Ben Nealon

Murder with Class

A JUDGMENT IN STONE

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!

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Sophie Ward (Photo: Mark Yeoman)

 

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Sharp Practice

REHEARSAL FOR MURDER

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 9th May, 2016

 

The whodunit is a staple of the touring theatre circuit.  We enjoy trying to puzzle out the identity of the killer – there is pleasure in being proved right and, if wrong, there is admiration for the writer and the production that has led us so merrily up the garden path.  In this respect, David Rogers’s adaptation of a story by Ricard Levinson and William Link (the writers of Murder, She Wrote, no less) is no different from others doing the rounds.  How it differs, how it sets itself apart from and above most of the rest, is with a sophisticated structure and a truly clever conceit that, I readily admit, I didn’t twig.

Set in an empty theatre (shades of The Woman in Black) playwright Alex Dennison (Robert Daws) sets up for a reading of his latest work.  It’s all a ruse to unmask the murderer of his fiancée, the actress Monica Welles (Amy Robbins) a year ago.  The cast assembles and through a series of flashbacks, Dennison narrates events of that fateful night and then stages new scenes, hoping to catch the conscience of the killer.  He has a police officer ready-planted in the stalls…

As mastermind Dennison, Daws owns the stage, able to drop out of narrator mode into some highly-charged emotional scenes.  Amy Robbins brings old-school glamour to the role of the ill-fated Monica, while Robert Duncan is good fun as irrepressible old luvvie David Mathews.  Susan Penhaligon is enjoyable as Bella, the overbearing producer, delivering some of the show’s best lines with relish.  Steven Pinder is good as neurotic director Lloyd, and there are energetic performances from Ben Nealon as the ‘juvenile’ Leo Gibbs and Lucy Dixon as ‘ingenue’ Karen Daniels.  It’s all slightly larger-than-life and on the leeward side of camp, making for an enjoyable watch and an intriguing mystery.  Despite being told from the off, we are going to be deceived, I genuinely don’t see the reveal coming.

Roy Marsden directs with an assured hand.  The sophisticated structure is handled with clarity and style, making for a delightful evening and a fresh take on a popular genre, expertly performed by a likeable ensemble.

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Calling the shots: Robert Daws


Murder Most Fine

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 3rd February, 2015

 

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company revisit this classic mystery for their current UK tour; I saw their 2008 production but I couldn’t for the life of me remember who done it. Even if I had, or if you know the story, there is much to enjoy here. This kind of old-fashioned, solid entertainment provides opportunities to see some of our finest character actors doing their thing.

A group of strangers gathers in a large house on a remote island. They have been invited there under false pretences. Early moments are like the first night in the Big Brother house as they introduce themselves to each other (and to us) before the tension begins its slow burn, and they start popping their clogs. The deaths seem to be related to an old rhyme that in this politically correct age is now about ten little ‘soldier boys’ – everything else is in keeping with the 1930s setting.   The art deco architecture of Simon Scullion’s set is remarkable.

Verity Rushworth is the ingénue, looking fab in a range of Roberto Surace’s evocative costumes. Rushworth’s lightness has a darker edge; she pitches it perfectly. Indeed as each character’s back story comes to light, we see beneath the veneer of civility. Paul Nicholas is suitably pompous as a high court judge, contrasting with Judith Rae as the housekeeper, with her down-to-earth nature and touches of humour. Frazer Hines is an unpretentious butler (making him prime suspect for a while, of course!), while Ben Nealon is the dashing Philip Lombard, all scorn and flash heroics. It is an absolute treat to see Susan Penhaligon as curmudgeonly old biddy Miss Brent – someone needs to employ her as Lady Bracknell at once; forget David Suchet! These are character types you find in Christie’s plays but this experienced and skilful cast humanise them beyond the requirements of the plot. Upper Class Twit Anthony Marston is made bearable by Paul Hassall’s portrayal. Eric Carte is rather sweet as General Mackenzie, resigned to his doom, and Mark Curry makes an impression as the somewhat neurotic Doctor Armstrong.

Director Joe Harmston handles the material with assurance; he knows exactly how to pace this type of thing, not rushing Christie’s sometimes ponderous script, and timing shocks and surprises with expertise. The result is a comfortably intriguing night at the theatre. The company takes us for a bit of a thrill ride, slowly but surely drawing us in as the plot reaches its conclusion.

Great stuff.

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Grounds for Murder

BLACK COFFEE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 3rd February, 2014

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is back on the road.  This year’s offering is an excellent production of Christie’s first play, featuring Robert Powell at the top of the bill as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

From curtain up it is clear this is a quality show.  Simon Scullion’s art deco set is grand, stylish and elegant, and is matched by the formal evening wear of the characters.  This is very much a period piece, as evinced by a plethora of lines about ‘foreigners’ and how they can’t be trusted.  “They’re clever!” someone says as though it’s a bad thing.  It’s like a UKIP broadcast and just as funny.

Director Joe Harmston is a dab hand at this kind of thing; he knows how to pitch it just right for a present-day audience, having his cast play the cardboard characters as naturalistically as possible – We’re not meant to care about them; we’re meant to suspect each and every one of them as we try to solve the puzzle before the detective reveals who done it.

Robert Powell is a marvellous Poirot, acting with a quiet authority, assurance and wry humour – the play is funnier than you might expect.

The plot centres around the sudden death of a rich inventor and no one is above suspicion.  Company stalwart Ben Nealon gives a solid turn as the dead man’s disgruntled son.   Another regular, Liza Goddard witters and sparkles as batty Aunt Caroline – imagine Christine Hamilton in Downton Abbey.   Felicity Houlbrooke brings energy as bright young thing Barbara, cutting a rug with the dashing Mark Jackson as Raynor, the dead man’s personal secretary.  We almost veer into Allo Allo territory with Gary Mavers’s Italian doctor – but then foreigners are supposed to be dodgy – and I particularly enjoyed Robin McCallum as Captain Hastings, Poirot’s nice but dim sidekick.

It’s hardly ground-breaking theatrically speaking but with its fine blend of humour and intrigue and a cast that’s full of beans, Black Coffee perks up a dismal winter evening.

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Scene of the Crime

GO BACK FOR MURDER

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 25th November, 2013

On paper the premise for Agatha Christie’s 1960 play seems rather intriguing.  Young woman comes to England from Canada to uncover the truth behind her parents’ deaths.  Did her birth mother really poison her father?  She meets, takes tea and interviews people who were material witnesses in the murder trial.  One after the other… The first act is, in reality, a string of two-handed scenes in which the witnesses (now also suspects) spill their guts all-too-readily.  The dialogue is like giving testimony in court rather than conversation.  They all remark on how much the Canadian girl looks like her murderer mother.

In the second act, the cast are let off the leash as, in flashback, the events of that fateful day are played out, and they get to interact with each other at last, and we get to see a country-house murder after all.

Sophie Ward, all 60s hip in bobbed hair and a dress like a Mondrian painting plays her own mother (so that’s why they kept mentioning the resemblance!) contrasting the accents of mother and daughter very well.  Gary Mavers is the victim, the artist and temperamental prick Amyas Crale – there is no pity engendered for him; the suspense comes from waiting for him to die.  In this respect, Christie is playing to our darker side.  And we love it.

In the first act, Lysette Anthony gives an overly mannered performance as Lady Elsa Greer but in the flashback she is more palatable as the artist’s model-cum-mistress.  Stuffed shirts Robert Duncan and Antony Edridge have little to stretch them but they occupy the stage as potential culprits and atmosphere-bringers more than competently.  The marvellous Liza Goddard is underused as Miss Williams the governess, and Georgia Neville makes for a rather grownup little girl.  Tying it all together in the quasi-detective/narrator role is Ben Nealon as the dashing young solicitor.

Director Joe Harmston keeps the stage uncluttered – there is enough to create an impression of era and place – and keeps the company on the right side of caricature.  The play is all about the puzzle, although what drives it is the notion that no two people remember an event in exactly the same way.

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