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.
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 1st November, 2019
Two estranged sisters are reunited in the neglected garden of their family home, following the death of their abusive father. The elder, Annabel, hasn’t been back for decades, but stands to inherit the lot. It fell to the younger sister, Miriam, to care for the old bastard, with the help of a hired nurse, whom Miriam has recently sacked. The nurse, Alice, confronts Annabel, claiming to have evidence that Miriam had a direct hand in the death of her father. Blackmail rears its ugly head and Annabel finds herself in a situation where she is forced to protect her sister… So begins Alan Ayckbourn’s taut little thriller, a tale of coercion, bitterness, resentment, and murder. More celebrated for his comedies, Ayckbourn shows here a different string to his bow. The premise, the intrigue, and the subsequent twists and turns are Hitchcock-worthy. A deceptively simple three-hander, the play offers plum parts for older women to get their teeth into. moustache of epic proportions.
Rachel Alcock plays hard-faced Annabel, who barely lightens up at all and remains rather severe throughout. It is the character’s defence mechanism, I suppose, given the tribulations of her life, but I would like to see her reveal a more vulnerable and sympathetic side – especially during her lengthy speech about her failed marriage.
Alex Kapila turns in a compelling performance as the disturbed Miriam, displaying emotional immaturity one minute and inner fire the next. As the power shifts around the trio, we’re forever changing our minds about who exactly is the victim here.
Completing the trio is Barbara Treen, pitch perfect as the sinister blackmailer. Ayckbourn’s superlative writing is in good hands with these three, and director Lynda Lewis navigates the highs and lows, the lights and shades of the dialogue to great effect. The physical action needs to be tighter; the actors need more confidence in their moves, and I think the climactic scene in the middle of the night can afford to be darker, so that almost all of the lighting comes from the two handheld lanterns. This would augment the eeriness and the unsettling nature of proceedings.
There are more scares to be had if the director pushed the envelope just a little farther. Still, this is a solid and entertaining production of a dark and clever play, and it’s well worth an evening of your time.
The upper hand: Alice (Barbara Treen) comes between sisters Miriam (Alex Kapila) and Annabel (Rachel Alcock)
Prolific writer Anthony Horowitz turns his attention to the stage with this small-scale thriller very much along the lines of mega-hits Sleuth and Deathtrap – plays that have a small cast, an intriguing plot and more twists than a Chubby Checker convention. The set-up: we meet Styler, waiting in the office of Dr Farquhar, in an upmarket mental health facility aka hospital for the criminally insane. Styler, dictating into a recorder, doles out exposition: he is a true-crime writer come to interview notorious inmate, the serial killer Easterman, for his next project; the doctor has been keeping him waiting for two hours…
We pick up right away that things are not what they seem. Contradictions in the dialogue and, more subtly, changes in the set: a video screen for the window changes imperceptibly, for example. As soon as Farquhar shows up, the plot gets into motion. The doctor is something of an oddball – and the discerning audience member will be trying to pre-empt the surprises and guess the outcome.
It’s played with conviction. Andrew Ryan’s Styler and Michael Sherwin’s Farquhar complement each other well, with the doctor more often than not holding court, adding to the weirdness and the unsettling feeling that something bad is about to take place. Making up the trio is Sarah Wynne Kordas as Nurse Paisley – or is she? Violence erupts, power shifts, layers of falsehood and diversion are stripped away… There are a few gasps from the audience who don’t see things coming, but the plot, rather than thickening, seems diluted by each new turnabout, and there are holes in the logic you could drive an ambulance through.
What we are left with is a bit of a mess, an exercise in unpleasantness that doesn’t measure up to the aforementioned greats of the genre. It’s well-presented and director Karen Henson focusses our attention and gives us surprises at all the right moments but for me the play doesn’t gel, and mental illness as entertainment has surely had its day. I’m not crazy about it.
Not as clever as it pretends, Mindgame teases, amuses and puzzles but is ultimately unsatisfying.
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 7th November, 2017
Ira Levin’s classic thriller is doing the rounds in this effective new production, featuring two escapees from Albert Square, namely Paul Bradley and Jessie Wallace as husband and wife. He is a playwright who hasn’t had a hit for a few years; she is the supportive wife with a weak constitution, who has been funding their life together in their smart little barn conversion in the woods… Along comes bright young thing Sam Phillips with an idea for a new play, and the scene is set for double-crosses, shocks and surprises.
Levin’s script is clever, laced with sarcastic wit and tell-tale details – if you know what to look for. I’ve seen the play before so I knew all its secrets going in but director Adam Penford manages the twists and turns, changes of pace, the violence and the laughs with skill, providing a few jump scares along the way.
Paul Bradley dominates as the desperate and overbearing Sidney, while Jessie Wallace, unusually dowdy in her frumpy beige cardigan and not a hint of leopard print for miles, gives a restrained performance as Myra with the dodgy ticker. Sam Phillips’s Clifford brings energy and good looks, and there is a wild comic cameo from Beverley Klein as visiting Swedish psychic, Helga ten Dorp. Julien Ball completes the quintet as Sidney’s smooth attorney, Porter Milgrim.
Morgan Large’s attractive, rustic set bedecked with a range of vicious weapons gives the action its arena but at times Ben and Max Ringham’s music is a little heavy-handed. Moments of violence are underscored for added atmosphere, heightening the emotion but lessening its realism.
It’s a play that deconstructs itself as it plays out. The characters discuss the elements of a stage thriller before and after we see them enacted within the plot, and it is this knowingness that makes Levin’s piece a classic of the genre. A similar approach was adopted much later by horror film Scream. But like all thrillers, it’s about not-particularly-nice people doing despicable things for (usually) financial gain. Unusually, there is no detective to wheedle out the truth – a different comeuppance awaits these plotters…
This is a solid production, well played and engaging. A darkly delicious way to spend an evening.
Paul Bradley and Jessie Wallace host a cardigan festival