Write Me A Murder – June 2009

6/10

By Frederick Knott

Directed by Ian Dickens

Company: Ian Dickens Productions

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 16th June 2009

This was the only Frederick Knott play we hadn’t seen, so we were keen to add it to our list. The plot takes place in an old country house, part of a large estate which has been run down over the years. The set showed the study/sitting room, with a section of it walled off to the right. This part had a door or French windows out to the gardens, a filing cabinet, table and chair, and lots of bookcases with some guns displayed on the wall near the front. The door to the other part of the room was towards the back. The sitting room had a door to the kitchen on the left, next to the large fireplace. There were French windows centre back leading to the garden and we could see a sundial just outside them. There were chairs and a desk, and we could also see the stairs up to the bedrooms at the back on the left which was also the way to the front door. There was lots of wood panelling, and various family portraits hung about the place.

The plot concerned the sale of the house by its current owner the Honourable Clive Rodingham to Charles Sturrock, a businessman who’s made pots of money but who started out with nothing more than a chip on his shoulder when he lived in the very village they can see from the windows of this house. He’s mad keen to buy up the big house and become the lord of the manor, getting his own back on all the posh folk who he felt looked down on him all those years ago. He’s brought his young wife with him, Julie. She’s trying to be a writer, and as Clive’s younger brother David is an established author and has finally turned up now that his brother’s told him their father’s dead, Sturrock rather menacingly suggests that David help Julie out with her story which he agrees to do.

She’s attempting to win a short story competition in the newspapers; a small prize, but given her husband’s crushing contempt for her abilities it’s a big step for her. David mainly writes thrillers and detective stories so they start to work out a murder plot. Clive, meanwhile, is off to America to schmooze his prospective in-laws; he’s nabbed a rich US woman and hopes to live a life of contented luxury for many a year to come. There’s also a Doctor pottering around, Elizabeth Woolley, an old family friend as well as the local GP, and still as sharp as a pin. A good mix of characters, with a number of possibilities.

The plot was a little bit clunky, with lots of room for things to go wrong, but it was enjoyable enough. It felt like an attempt to reprise Dial M For Murder; it wasn’t quite up to that standard, although the final twist was lovely to watch. Some decent performances, and a reasonably good night all in all.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Gaslight – July 2007

8/10

By: Frederick Knott

Directed by: Peter Gill

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 25th July 2007

This was good fun. It’s a well-known story, so I don’t have to explain much. The performances were excellent, getting as much detail as you could possibly get out of each character. The whole production was just about perfect, the set and costumes all contributing to the overall effect.

First, the set. The detail was amazing. For once, we actually get to see the hall and stairs outside of the living room, and the dressing room to the left where ex-Detective Rough hides. The main room is full of knick-knacks, the walls lined with pictures (apart from the obvious gap), and everything was draped with heavy fabrics. Above the walls, we could see some chimney tops and sky, which I felt was the only slight (and I emphasise slight) negative for the design. The significance of the noises in the upstairs room is lessened when there doesn’t seem to be an upstairs to have strange noises.

Rosamund Pike as Bella Manningham gave a marvellous central performance. She reminded me of Grace Kelly – she has the same luminous quality, projecting innocence and decency, and easily making us sympathise with her predicament. She was all nerves and paleness, starting up from her seat with every fleeting emotion. It was a very clear picture of a woman driven to near madness by a scheming and unsympathetic husband. Her moment of revenge was also very good, as she reprised her madness for her husband’s benefit (or rather, to his detriment). I got the impression that she’ll be all right now she’s out of his clutches.

Andrew Woodall as her husband, Jack Manningham, delivered a matching performance. He was creepy without being over the top, although he was very menacing with Elizabeth, the housekeeper. I found it uncomfortable at times to see how he was manipulating his wife to keep her unbalanced, and drive her deeper into despair. It was good to see him get his comeuppance, though I would have liked to have seen his expression as she tormented him briefly at the end (he had his back to us).

Kenneth Cranham played ex-Detective Rough, and gave the part full gravitas and authority. It seems a tricky part, carrying most of the exposition, but a seasoned performer like Kenneth wasn’t about to let us down. With the dressing room in view, we get to see him avoiding the husband when he’s changing his collar and tie, and that certainly added to the tension. He also contributed most of the humour, including skipping nimbly round the room on occasion.

What also added to the tension was the excellent reactions of Rowena Cooper as Elizabeth, the housekeeper who does her best to help Bella. Knowing that Rough is hiding in the dressing room, she waits for the outcry from Mr Manningham, and her expression changes wonderfully as she realises they might just get away with it. This is the point where Mr Manningham behaves threateningly towards her, so she has to cover quite a range in one scene. She recovers well to swear undying loyalty to the husband, but we know where her heart lies.

Sally Tatum as Nancy, the sluttish maid who intimidates Bella, was also excellent. She played a first-class guttersnipe, if that’s not too much of a contradiction, and talk about wanton! When asked to kiss the Bible, she almost manages to slip it the tongue!

The attention to detail included the business of tea-pouring, cigar lighting, and, of course, lighting the gas lamps. Nobody rushed these things, and the pace felt right for the times. In particular, Bella takes her time to pour the tea so delicately, and all these points helped to create a real sense of time and place. The claustrophobia was also evident, and when Rough is talking about the murder of Alice Barlow, I felt there was ghost story hovering in the wings. Despite the feeling of menace, however, there were also a few good laughs, including a topical one when Rough mentioned that the weather “merits a world of comment at the moment” (we’ve been having a lot of rain and flooding recently).

All these factors combined to make for a very enjoyable afternoon, and the best production I’ve seen of this play. The audience obviously agreed, and when they took their bows, we booed Mr Manningham, and cheered Rough and Bella. Great fun.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dial M For Murder – June 2007

6/10

By: Frederick Knott

Directed by: Michael Lunney

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 7th June 2007

This production had toured before, but had been largely recast, so we thought we’d give it another visit. It was still enjoyable, only now the emphasis was more on comedy. James McPherson as Tony Wendiss gave a lovely over-the-top turn as the pantomime villain; allowable as his character is playing a part for most of the play. He calmed down when he was enlisting the killer, but otherwise it was seriously “dramatic”.

The other characters were in line with this. I found the accents a bit too cut-glass at first, then realised that was the style they were going for, and relaxed into it. It all worked pretty well, and as the plot is so well known, it must be difficult to find new ways to do this play. Michael Lunney reprised his role as the Inspector, giving him a strong Birmingham accent and deadpan delivery which again brought out the humour. I remembered the use of film and the screen in the door to show us the climactic discovery, and overall, I enjoyed myself reasonably well.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me