Tag Archives: Paul Hassall

Murder Most Fine


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.

and then

Bad Habits

CADFAEL: The Virgin in the Ice

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 24th April, 2013

I will begin with a confession: I’ve never read any of Ellis Peters’s medieval whodunits.  I’ve never seen any of the television adaptations either.  So I approached this production with no expectations or prejudice but now, having seen it, I believe it’s unlikely I ever will.

On face value, the production looks impressive and has clearly had a lot of money spent on it. The set is elaborate and evocative – but the trouble is there’s too much of it.  A lot of time is spent transitioning from one scene to another, interrupting the flow.  To cover these gaps, we get clips of video or pre-recorded snatches of dialogue but the changes of scenery get in the way of both of these.  I would suggest a different approach: emblematic theatre would be a more efficient way of staging the story.

There is a lot of scenes and some of them are very short indeed, suddenly plunged into blackout so that the set can be on the move again.  There is a totally unnecessary scene of the titular virgin in her giant ice cube thawing out on a bier with some flame-effect lamps.  She needs to be defrosted so Cadfael can examine her but we don’t need to see this. A line of dialogue at the top of the examination scene would do the job more efficiently.

The video clips are a mixed bag. When they enhance the scenery (showing leafless trees with rooks cawing and flapping about) they work quite well.  When they are used to bridge scenes, they don’t.  Conflation of scenes would neaten this up.  It feels like the show wants to be a film, and the conventions of that medium don’t translate very well to the stage.

This brings me to the dialogue.  Everyone speaks in that heightened manner you tend to get in ‘historical’ dramas, in a way that no one ever spoke in the past.  I’m not suggesting they should be spouting cod Chaucer instead (that would be worse) but a touch more naturalism would not be amiss.  On the page this kind of talk reads well.  On the telly, where performances are smaller and more intimate, you can get away with it.  But when actors have to project, they just sound like pompous arses.  Few can handle such lines and pull them off.  In particular, James Palmer as Evrard Boterel stands out as being able to breathe life into the words.  Others had their moments.  I also liked Paul Hassall as Cadfael’s lawman friend Hugh Beringar and Gareth Thomas (Blake off of Blake’s 7) as the inquisitive monk.  Cadfael is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and CSI: Medieval Shropshire, and Thomas occupies the character with warmth and credibility.

To adaptor, director and designer Michael Lunney I say three words: Less is more.  Fans of Cadfael will probably have read the book anyway but new to it, I found the whole thing lacking in tension and the unfolding mystery uninvolving.  There is, however, the most staggering bit of over-acting in an eye patch you will ever be privileged to witness.

Paul Hassall and Gareth Thomas

Paul Hassall and Gareth Thomas