Tag Archives: Bob Saul

Of Mice and Murder


New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 4th February, 2013

Agatha Christie’s most famous play has been running in the West End for 60 years, and is still going strong.  Now, in celebration of this anniversary, comes this touring production, saving us all the rail fare to London.

The first murder happens before the curtain goes up and straightaway we are plunged into the mystery.  The description given by the police could fit most of the characters that subsequently appear at Monkswell Manor Guest House, a fledgling business venture run by young married couple Giles and Mollie Ralston.  The usual suspects assemble: the reactionary old frump (Elizabeth Power), the madcap twit (Steven France), the retired military man (Graham Seed), the dodgy foreigner (Karl Howman), and the forthright young lady (Clare Wilkie).

As they become snowed in, cut off in this rambling country house, the play takes on an air of Cluedo crossed with Big Brother, as the guests annoy each other and argue.  The arrival of a detective on skis cranks up the tensions between them, and the audience eagerly awaits the next victim and we speculate over the identity of the killer.

This is standard Christie fare.  There is always something delicious about the murder mystery in a big house and this production conveys that atmosphere very well, thanks to a sturdy and evocative set and direction by Ian Watt-Smith.  The script is from a time when foreigners were immediately suspect – the dodgiest thing about Karl Howman’s Mr Paravicini is his accent.  And gay men were considered mentally deficient – Steven France’s Christopher Wren is as camp as cupcakes, prancing around like Louie Spence and laughing like the Joker.  Christie lays in the red herrings with a trowel – you know the denouement is going to be cleverer and more surprising than you first surmise…

Having said that, when the killer is revealed, the loose ends are tied up rather superficially and the action dribbles to a close.  It’s a bit convenient, I found, and some moments in the second act could do with picking up the pace, but on the whole I found this is a quality production that brings life and energy to a creaky old plot in a creaky old house.

Jemma Walker carries the emotional weight of the piece as young Mrs Ralston and a lot of the energy comes from Bob Saul’s performance as the quirky detective.  Graham Seed is in his element in this kind of thing as the dignified retired Major, and Elizabeth Power is delightful as the curmudgeonly old trout.  Bruno Langley keeps us guessing as young Mr Ralston in an effective turn as curmudgeon-in-waiting, and Clare Wilkie as Miss Casewell, in male attire, adds intrigue.  Even with the more exaggerated character types, you can’t help wondering what they might be up to.  I think this is perhaps at the heart of the play’s longevity: you want to find out more and try to beat the characters to the killer’s unmasking.

Definitely worth seeing, The Mousetrap is a slice of British culture, a helping of nostalgia for a bygone age that has an undercurrent of human nature that is still recognisable in society today – said he being careful not to give anything away.

Catch it if you can!


A Farce To Reckon With

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Thursday 21st June, 2012

The title of John Chapman’s 1950s comedy refers to a patch on the staircase in a country house hotel. The step is to be avoided at all costs – so we wait with mounting anticipation for someone to put their foot in it.

This is just one element of this traditional farce contrived to amuse. That’s the thing with farces: it is all about contrivance. This one, involving the switching of racehorses and the kidnapping of a jockey, is still very amusing. Most of the jokes still work and the comic business, when it works, is a scream. The performance I saw included a pair of trousers that didn’t drop at the crucial moment and a scene that began before the stage manager had quit the stage – I suspect hitches like this happen all the time. The way the actors ad lib and handle these problems adds to our enjoyment.

Timing is essential. A skilful cast is required and this production boasts a wealth of comic talent, with some well-known and lesser-known faces all pulling together as the action winds them up like clockwork. Ron Aldridge’s direction builds the pace nicely but there are a couple of moments that could do with a rethink: the inadvertent knocking out of the hotel owner seemed very awkward to me, and the sounds of Beth the maid dropping stuff sound a little too recorded.

The characters would not look out of place in a P G Wodehouse novel. Neil Stacy as long-suffering proprietor Colonel Wagstaff is a likeable old cove. He is the stiff upper lip put to the test. Liza Goddard is his bright-eyed, absent-minded wife. The two of them barely tolerate the walking disaster area of a maid they inherited from the previous owners (Susan Penhaligon in a consistently hilarious portrayal). Their status quo is disturbed by the arrival of the crooks, Alfred Tubb and Fred Phipps (Derren Nesbitt and Norman Pace) masquerading as respectable bookies. They are in cahoots with Norman Pace’s erstwhile double act partner Gareth Hale as local ne’er-do-well, Flash Harry. These three provide most of the physical comedy. Norman Pace is especially energetic and moronic, eagerly becoming falling-down-drunk.

I liked naive young secretary Bob Saul, handsome but a bit of a twit, trying to woo the proprietors’ daughter (Evelyn Adams, who reminded me of a young Jane Asher). Add a French jockey who doesn’t speak English to the mix (Michael Keane, who manages to wring humour from his characterisation without resorting to caricature or xenophobia) and by the interval, the scene is set for a fast and frantic second half. And then a buxom WPC (Sarah Whitlock in a spirited performance) turns up and the potential for misunderstandings and confusion is maximised.

At times the plot seems as creaky as the stairs. At any second it could fall through but for the most part there is plenty of use left in this old play. It has aged very well but my admiration remains firmly with the cast and the way they keep the balloon in the air, when lines fall flat, or a bit of business goes awry. It must be hard work but I suspect they’re having as much fun as the audience.