Wimborne Drama Productions Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne JJ 19 October 2023
A murder mystery/thriller is always good solid and reliable fodder for the incredibly loyal supporters of Wimborne Drama, who came out in force for the first night of this play. It’s always lovely to see a full theatre. There was barely a spare seat in the downstairs auditorium and there were even seats taken in the balcony. I was certainly intrigued to see this offering from Levinson and Link, the team behind Columbo and Murder She Wrote.
It is the anniversary of the untimely death of a famous onscreen actress and up-and-coming Broadway star, Monica Welles. A famous playwright (and Monica’s former fiancé), Alex Dennison, assembles all those who last engaged with her, in the very theatre in which she had starred in the opening night of Alex’s new play the previous year. Even though Monica’s death was ruled as a suicide following bad reviews from the critics, Alex believes otherwise. He plans to prove it and trap a killer under the pretence of reading excerpts from his latest play.
It was quite a different production from the normal murder mystery/ thriller, which was refreshing, if not a little challenging. Set in the 1980s (though the costumes were a little inconsistent in this regard) and in an otherwise empty theatre, there was a nicely eerie feel about the production. It was good to see a large cast (13) as well.
Alex (Rob Cording-Cook) is the lynchpin of the production being onstage for the whole time and driving the story. A safe pair of hands was required for this sort of part and Rob certainly provided those. However, a greater range of emotion and intensity of emotion both vocally and physically would have helped to sustain the action and maintain tension and energy, particularly in the slower sections.
Whilst I appreciate difficulties in casting in amateur theatre and the greater tolerance in age ranges that are necessarily required, the age difference between Alex and Monica (Tracie Billington-Beardsley) unfortunately was too great to be convincing. Having subsequently researched the play, I found that generally Alex and Monica are cast as similar ages; in fact, Alex is normally being cast as the older of the two rather than as the younger as was the case here, which I can see would work better.
Despite this reservation, Tracie gave a solid performance as Monica. However, as the play was set in the US (though there is no reason why it could not have been adjusted to have been set in the UK), I would have preferred to hear her with an American accent like the rest of the cast as the English one seemed anomalous.
The rest of the cast worked well as a supporting ensemble and although I haven’t the space to detail each performance, I will mention James Bourner (who played Leo Gibbs) as he did boost the energy level when he appeared on stage. Sadly, however, pace and passion were generally lacking, maybe due to first night nerves, which undermined the tension and excitement of the denouement. One small point; it was surprising to see a detective with an untucked shirt!
The action was quite static at times and I would like to have seen more movement and better use of the large stage. When 3 or more actors were on their feet, distracting straight lines quickly developed and this trap can easily be avoided. Entrances, particularly from stage left, were often clunky and unnatural and could have flowed into the action better.
The sets were as ever very good, always a strong point for the group and I liked the backdrops and the use of the projector. The ghostly figure of Monica was overplayed and ultimately detracted from some of those scenes. The programme was as good and interesting as I have come to expect from Wimborne Drama, though I am sure a picture noted as Robert Preston was in fact of Patrick Macnee!
The audience clearly loved it and I picked up numerous positive reactions. It was an enjoyable evening. I wish the cast good luck and full houses for the rest of the run which finishes on Saturday 21 October.