The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 25th April 2022
First Atlantis, then Dallas, and now Birmingham! Patrick “Bobby Ewing” Duffy stars in this (to me) obscure comedy-thriller from 1965, which has been dug up by Bill Kenwright Productions. Duffy plays Daniel Corban, a honeymooner whose wife has been missing for three days from the remote chalet they have borrowed from Daniel’s boss. The local police are on the case but then a woman turns up. Is she really the missing Mrs or, as Daniel insists, is she an imposter out to get him and, consequently, his life insurance?
On the surface, it’s standard genre fare, but its elevated by a dry and witty script by Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert. With more twists and turns than a corkscrew, the plot keeps you guessing in this hugely enjoyable, somewhat cosy murder-mystery.
Duffy is in fine form as the neurotic Corban, tightly wound and sarcastic, and of course, it’s a treat to see him live, for reals, and not just in Pam Ewing’s dream. No shower scene tonight, alas, but Duffy has a laidback confidence, which makes Corban’s increasingly desperate state all the more of a contrast.
As the is-she-or-isn’t-she wife Elizabeth, the alluring Linda Purl is great fun, and she is aided and abetted by Ben Nealon’s not-to-be-trusted clergyman. Gray O’Brien is excellent as the wise-cracking, jaded police inspector, and there is strong character support from the wonderfully named Hugh Futcher as Sidney from the sandwich shop. Paul Lavers makes his mark as Corban’s brash boss, with Chloe Zeitounian makes a fleeting impression in her brief appearance as the bit-on-the-side, ‘Mrs Parker’.
The mystery is intriguing enough to keep us hooked, while the rich vein of humour keeps us amused as the story unfolds and surprises. Bob Tomson’s direction paces the action well to create such an entertaining evening, we’re willing to overlook the occasional stretches of credibility. A well-made production, nicely played by all concerned. (There was an issue of patchy microphone coverage at the performance I saw. I prescribe a thorough soundcheck before the curtain goes up again.)
All in all, it’s good fun. Catch it while you can.
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!
Based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of 1938, this brand-new production from the Classic Thriller Theatre Company, begins in Austria during the Nazi occupation. Imagine, if you can, a world in which fascism is on the rise… Oh, wait. The action begins with a train being delayed – Imagine if you can, the trains not running on time – Oh, never mind! These modern parallels aside, this is an entertaining period piece, old-fashioned in both form and content.
Gwen Taylor leads the cast as the titular disappearing woman, the tweedy Miss Froy. It’s not until she does her disappearing act, that the play picks up momentum. Up until then, it’s been character after character charging around, a little too much exposition, perhaps. Taylor’s Froy is spot on for dotty old English biddy, harmless and friendly; she comes to the aid of young Iris, who is, rather contrivedly, bashed on the head at the station. Scarlett Archer does all the right things as the plucky damsel, distressed over the old biddy’s disappearance, while everyone around her denies Miss Froy even existed. It’s an intriguing mystery and keeps us interested. Director Roy Marsden does a bang-up job of bringing matters to a head by the end of the first act, with Iris’s desperation rising to a crescendo amid the consternation of everyone else.
The rest of the company includes some stalwarts of this kind of thing: the mighty Denis Lill is paired up with Ben Nealon as a pair of cricket-obsessed duffers who provide much of the show’s comedic moments; Mark Wynter combines silver foxiness with arrogance as an adulterous barrister, while Rosie Thomson is suitably despairing as his embittered mistress. There is a cold, chilling turn from Andrew Lancel as dodgy Doctor Hartz, while Joe Reisig makes for an imposing presence as a Nazi official striding around as if he owns the train. Providing support for Iris is the funny, handsome and charming Max (played by the funny, handsome and charming Nicholas Audley).
The transmutable set, designed by Morgan Large, serves as both station and train, including compartments, is impressive and, coupled with lighting effects from Charlie Morgan Jones, sound effects by Dan Samson, and subtle bobbing on the spot by the cast, the sensation of being on a train is superbly evoked. Antony Lampard’s adaptation of the screenplay has a bit too much of the characters describing what they can see happening through the windows of the train but, that aside, the story builds to a climactic and thrilling gunfight and reaches a pleasingly romantic resolution.
Solid and dependable fare, the play delivers what you expect, with high quality production values and a skilled and effective cast. Reliably gripping, this is an enjoyable night at the theatre.
Scarlett Archer and Nicholas Audsley are not convinced by the delay-repay scheme
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!
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.
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.
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 AlloAllo 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.
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.