Agatha Crusty and the Village Hall Murders

This is a most appropriate play to be staged in a village hall, since the plot revolves around the bumping off, one by one, of the members of the hall committee in the village of Chortelby. Fortunately, crime writer Agatha Crusty is paying a visit to Chortelby and it is she who sees through the distractions and red herrings and names the murderer.

It is extremely light fare and there is no point in pretending otherwise. Similarly, the members of Double Act are on stage mainly for their own enjoyment and that of family, neighbours and friends rather than because they are harbouring any strong thespian ambitions. Take the production on those terms and it can provide an enjoyable evening.

Christine Kemp plays the part of Agatha with authority and admirably clear diction, but the star of the show is the bumbling Detective Inspector Twigg. The fact that his first entrance is accompanied by the Pink Panther theme gives us an idea what to expect, and he could certainly give Inspector Clouseau a run for his money in the incompetence stakes. As Twigg, Dougal Dixon conveys just the right degree of groundless self-confidence, and shows himself to be a talented clown, especially in the final scene. His speech is liberally sprinkled with ‘ums’ and ‘ers’, but only he knows whether he is building up the character or trying to remember his lines.

Other notable performances come from Peter Smith as the Vicar, whose surname, confusingly, is Bishop, and from David Kemp in drag as Olivia Truscott-Pratt, with a nice cameo from Cherry Smith as a young model.

The direction, by David and Ashley Wellstead-Arnold, is occasionally a little static, especially in the first scene; the rostrum at the back of the stage is barely used, which seems rather a waste. There are many scene changes which would be too complex to do in full blackout, but they are made slickly and even with the odd touch of comedy. A rather charming reminder that we are not in a sophisticated theatre, but a village hall with no radio link between backstage and the lighting box, is the stage manager waving a feather duster when each scene is ready to begin.

It is, I think, the first time I have seen the prompt having her photo in the programme and being acknowledged by the whole cast at the curtain call. Regrettably, it is all too appropriate. However modest a company’s aspirations, it is a fundamental duty to the paying customers that the actors should know their lines. Not only are the prompts distracting for the audience but you throw your fellow-actors if you break the flow or, worse, ad lib to cover your confusion. And too many prompts kill that pace which is essential if you are trying to put over a comedy or farce. Double Act have been guilty in this respect before and it is, quite simply, unforgivable.

Agatha Crusty is gracing Corfe Castle Village Hall with her presence until 18 November at 7.30 each evening.