Tag Archives: Susan Penhaligon

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.

rehearsal

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.

and then


A Farce To Reckon With

DRY ROT
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.