Murder for the Asking

There can be only one way to begin this review of Ferndown Drama’s latest production in their 55-year history, which is to celebrate the fact that their home, the Barrington Theatre, is still their home. Circumstances beyond their control led to an abrupt, early and, I’m sure, traumatic end to their run of Outside Edge and it was especially enjoyable to be welcomed in what was very much a low-key, ‘business as usual’ way to the opening performance of Derek Benfield’s Murder for the Asking.

The play is described as a thriller although, as played here at least, ‘teaser’ would more accurately describe it – but it is no less enjoyable for that distinction. Set in the 1960s, as the financial allusions repeatedly remind us – to the audience’s evident and delighted amusement – the play hinges on a small ad to which the central character, Henry Scrubb, responds. When it turns out that the job on offer involves murder, Scrubb is appalled; when the murder subsequently occurs, at a time when his own whereabouts is difficult to prove, he is distraught. And all of this places him in a dilemma: to share what he does know or to deny even that.

In the substantial central role, Steve Hawker meets the challenge in a sustained and effective way. I recall sharing reservations about the same actor’s over-reliance on exaggerated facial contortions in a previous review but, while there was the occasional relapse, this was a much more measured and therefore convincing performance. Henry could be tackled in various ways but Hawker’s approach is consistent and that is its greatest strength. In his Chairman’s programme notes, he comments on the factors that influence the choice of plays that confront this and all such groups. Therein lies probably the weakest element of this production, in that, while it is generally well-cast, husband and wife Henry and Dora Scrubb seem ill-matched, their relationship often feeling more like that of mother and reluctantly over-reliant adult son.

As Dora, Jenny Sibley works hard but that striving results in the production’s least relaxed performance. Her own programme notes indicate that she literally answered a call to return from holiday to take the part, only joining rehearsals in early March: that is to her credit but perhaps goes some way to explaining what seemed an uneasy first night, one of those when it was difficult to separate hesitation on the part of the character from that on the part of the actor. A brave first night behind her, it would be gratifying to feel that Ms Sibley will be able to relax more into the role and her physical realisation of it now.

As the youthful but persistently annoying upstairs neighbour, Janet Gregory, Kristy Dixon is, despite an elusive accent, suitably irritating, but it is not until a departing moment in the second half that she really allows her character’s physicality to convince us of just how irritating she is: maybe that is as much a directorial influence as the actor’s own approach, but she should now have the confidence to buzz around the stage during those scenes in which she features, like a fly in urgent need of swatting. The contrast with other characters would enhance the production, which is generally directed with quiet assurance by Paul Marcus but could now profit from even greater variation in pace and tone, particularly in the husband and wife duologues, notwithstanding Henry’s appropriate lapses into indecision and unease.

There are also effective cameos, late on, from Richard Harker as a suitably dark Fred Pender and from Christine Hughes as Rita Franklyn in a small but critical role, both carried off all the more effectively for their restraint and discipline. Lee Tilson’s experience also shows as his first entry brings an early boost to the momentum of the playing: understated, never even approaching the potential pitfall of histrionics, all three of these performances serve the play well. Tilson’s James Franklyn in particular provides real satisfaction – an example of how less (effectively calculated) can be more.

The strongest sustained characterisation of the evening comes from Chaz Davenport as Detective Sergeant Thatcher. Wryly dogged, deceptively casual as he picks his way through an unusual scenario, his presence on the stage enhances every scene in which he features.

Lighting and sound are unfussy, serving the production in a way that is all the better for that. It is a shame, though, that a full blackout proves elusive, especially at one close of scene, the dramatic effectiveness of which is substantially marred in what becomes the production’s most awkward moment. An uncluttered set effectively represents the ground floor flat that is the scene throughout.

There are plays that are thought-provoking and/or challenging and there are plays unashamedly happy to settle for entertaining. This one belongs among the latter – and is none the worse for that. Along with the rest of the audience, I enjoyed the ride. This is a production that has the potential, if the more ponderous or tentative moments can evolve into something more consistently confident, to send larger audiences away feeling very satisfied. It is at the Barrington until 29 April at 7.45 nightly.