Five characters arrive at a manor house in the English countryside, joining the imperious owner of the house, her downtrodden niece and her incompetent butler. All of them have secrets and no-one is quite what they seem. Murder is inevitable in such an atmosphere, and so it turns out. To the rescue gallops Acting Inspector Pratt, who unfortunately is the most useless policeman this side of Inspector Clouseau. It all adds up to a splendid spoof of an Agatha Christie-type thriller, and Swanage Drama Company make the most of it. Don’t expect deep or subtle humour or ingenious plotting, but you can look forward to an amusing and enjoyable evening.
Few local actors play an idiot as well as Brian Travers, and much of the humour comes from his performance as Inspector Pratt. The part is very well-written, from punctured pomposity to malapropisms (the butler is ‘a faithful family container’, for example), but Brian’s timing of a line, his facial expressions and his physical comedy are all spot-on. It is one of the best of his many performances on the Mowlem stage.
All the other parts are not so much characters as stereotypes, but they are played for all they are worth by Simon Wells as a bluff colonel, Rosemary Smith as his stuck-up wife, Hannah Chelton as a young society girl and James Chelton as a Gallic art dealer. Claire Leyman-Hobbs does well as the niece, who is the only multi-faceted character: submissive to her aunt’s wishes but at the same time spirited and perceptive. Michael Peden clowns effectively as the butler, whether deadpan or drunk, and Lennon Yates gets the audience’s sympathy as Pratt’s long-suffering (and much more intelligent) sidekick. Anne Peden is convincingly smug as the all-knowing, all-seeing Miss Maple.
The set makes the bijou Mowlem stage look enormous and is imaginatively dressed. It is much wider than it is deep, which can be a trap for a director, especially when a long, low sofa occupies part of the front of the stage, but Pat Jones has done a good job in keeping the use of the space varied but natural. The fact that upstage was poorly lit in act 1 may just have been a first-night glitch, but the distracting shadow of the overhead chandelier was still thrown onto the back of the set in act 2 – lifting it just a foot or two would solve the problem.
Finally, hurrah for a director who is not a dedicated follower of fashion but uses the tabs between scenes. They are essential in a thriller, even a pastiche: I have seen far too many corpses miraculously resurrected and stumbling offstage in an incomplete blackout.
Murdered to Death continues at the Mowlem on 15 and 16 June at 7.30.