THE CAT AND THE CANARY
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!