NORTH WT ESSEX THEATRE GUILD

FULL LENGTH PLAY FESTIVAL APRIL 2000

LITTLE WALTHAM DRAMA GROUP MURDERED TO DEATH

 

THE PLAY

 

This play was new to me and despite the 1930's setting and the murder mystery suggested by the title, was not what I expected. In fact it was the funniest play of this ilk I have seen for a long time. The author succeeded very well in sending up the whole of the genre and having a wonderful dig at Agatha Christie. I saw a real Christie a couple of weeks ago, not of the Miss Marple's type, but it still set me up for the comedy here. This is really a very modern play ( 1993 ) and the author has had rich pickings from the world of film and TV as well. Inspector Pratt has to be modelled on Inspector Clousot and Peter Sellers, and Thomkins has overtones of that reliable and trustworthy Dixon of Dock Green. Bunting suggested something out of the Rocky Horror Show and so on. I think the play has a long life with amateur groups who are prepared to play it really larger than life!

 

THE SET

 

The set was solid and realistic looking. All the doors and the window worked well and shut with ease, even when people were in a hurry. The dark red colour gave the room a classy look and the red rug, though not visible to all the audience was a good finishing touch. There were some very good period touches, the chair rail and picture rail, the cast iron fireplace, the chintz curtains, the dark wood painted door and the well chosen sofa and chairs. The extra tables and all the props were also well in keeping and I particularly liked the phone. The pictures on the walls, especially the sepia looking ones were excellent. As there were so many, which was good, I was never quite sure which were the fakes and I think this could have been made more obvious for the audience. The wall paper through the doors to the hall and to the room to the right made a good backing and suggested the house was of a style. The lounge didn't look in need of redecoration to me, but I don't think that mattered. The armchair stage left next to the fire was rather pushed up tight and this presented some masking problems when cast members were far down stage left or in the other chair which faced into the stage. However, as usual you made the best of a small stage where opportunities. are limited. I think the set arrangement was similar for the last play but the decor was admirably different.

 

TECHNICAL EFFECTS

 

I liked the choice of curtain music, Trouble Ahead, and its connection with the TV advert only added to the tongue in cheek humour. The sound effects, door bells and telephones, were all on time and appropriate and the gun went off on cue. That was either luck or good planning, firing guns is a stage manager's nightmare.

The lighting was appropriate though I thought at first that a large shadow right was a stain on the wall to make the room look tatty, but it was the shadow of the flowers! Some shadow is inevitable

but this was rather an obvious one. Again, you obviously use the technical equipment available to you to its very best advantage.

 

COSTUME

 

On the whole the period was well captured, as was the class and type of the character. It is much easier to make the most of characters like Elizabeth, as you can go to town with the sort of fashions that everyone associates with the period. I thought she looked excellent throughout and there were some nice touches with the beauty spot and her fur wrap and the black suede shoes with the straps. Dorothy and Mildred were more restrained. Dorothy looked suitably demure, but maybe Mildred needed to look a little more glamorous, especially as she was waiting for her long term lover. Margaret was suitably wafty in chiffon, although the dresses didn't have the same period look as the others. Miss Maple had the true look of her Marple forerunner and a great deal of care had gone into her outfit, from the thick stockings to the tapestry bag and the pork pie hat. The men fared very well, which often is not the case. Charles looked good in his plus fours and white socks. Pierre had the opulence of two good outfits, though I particularly liked the grey striped one. Bunting looked almost Dickensian in his just about fitting butler's suit and his spooky white gloves. The constable's uniform looked the genuine article and I don't know if props or costume created the plaster feet but they were an excellent comic touch, especially the last one for the curtain call. Inspector Pratt looked just that in his flowing cream raincoat, which he never removed and was obviously part of his status symbol. A great deal of effort had gone into the women's hair styles and the crimped curls and waves were very good indeed. Margaret would have been better with her hair up perhaps as she did not fit the style established. The overall effect of the costume was of the period and essentially of the character, which was good.

 

THE PRODUCTION

 

I can imagine that his play was almost more fun to rehearse than to perform and I think the cast are to be congratulated on keeping very straight faces throughout, despite the audiences loud and appreciative laughter. The director kept the pace going well and had a good idea of the style he wanted to achieve. I think he could have been bolder and encouraged a number of the cast to be more positive and bring more size to their portrayals. However, it was funny and did achieve the right audience reaction. Pushing the cast just that bit further would have made the whole piece that much more polished and hilarious. Having said that I did enjoy it very much. The comedy set pieces were well handled and there was reasonable pace and some excellent examples of comic timing. There could have been more variety of movement at times, some of the occasions when three of the cast were standing in a line could have been overcome by someone sitting down, there were plenty of places. The movement down stage left needed to be sorted out as there was a great deal of masking by the person standing in front of one armchair talking to someone in the far chair. May be the actors could have been in different chairs or elsewhere on stage. I know it is a small stage but there were other opportunities. I am surprised the actors being masked didn't complained! They are obviously well trained. Some of the other movement could have been quicker and more frenetic, e.g. Mildred chasing Charles round the room, Dorothy and Pierre. The shootings and deaths were very well done and the bodies fell like dead weights all over the stage in a most convincing way. Some of the really funny bits would have benefited from being further down stage like the Inspector's fall behind the sofa, but on the whole -the director had a good visual eye for a funny scene, such as Bunting's entry with the axe , or the Constable with his poorly feet. This was an enthusiastic production with enormous audience appeal and I think the cast enjoyed it as much as us.

 

THE CAST

 

Mildred Bagshot

Pat successfully gave the impression that she was slightly vague, useless at matter of fact tasks and quite capable of throwing a wooden elephant on the fire. She also managed to communicate a certain skittish excitement at the thought of her guests arriving and the Colonel in particular. When left alone with him, she was not desperate enough or even demanding enough and really needed to sound quite nasty when she threatened to tell. I feel that she was trying to make her performance too realistic for the style of the play and rather larger gestures and reactions would have made all the difference. She established her relationship with Dorothy well and had a good slightly off hand and naive manner with Bunting.

 

Dorothy Foxton

 

Gill had quite a difficult part here. She needed to make us feel that she was a good sweet girl, helping out her aunt with little thought of personal reward and the same time she was a very smart cookie, though not smart enough, and quite capable of the acerbic aside. She successfully communicated the nice side with her appearance and general manner, but could, I feel, have made more of the other opportunities. Again it is a matter of playing things rather larger than life. This sort of play allows for that and it really is fun not to have too worry too much about actual fact and realism. Dorothy has a good voice and she moves quickly and efficiently round the stage. She managed to convince us that she was too good to die really and then was shot, and that made for a good surprise element to the action.

 

Bunting

 

Alan was lugubrious and sinister at the same time. He had a most expressive face and had the blunt rudeness and lack of co-operation that the part required. He looked like the cat that got the cream at the end as he disappeared into the countryside with Margaret and he managed to be drunk and very funny without throwing himself around in an uncontrolled fashion. The tones of his voice were well in keeping with his character and there was a hint of Victorian melodrama about him which was quite right in the context. We expected him to limp at any minute !

 

Margaret Craddock

 

Chrissy really came into her own towards the end of the play. At the beginning she was almost too low key even though she didn't have much to say or do. We needed to see rather more of the boredom and the ability to deliver the caustic comment with aplomb. She may have been trying to lull us into a sense of false security but again size of presentation is all important. Once Chrissy got into the swing of getting her own way and being a baddy, she really came to life and the part became spirited and pushy and very positive  She had a good sense of timing towards the end and really seemed to be enjoying herself.

 

Charles Craddock

 

Glyn played his part with style and made the Colonel seem rather an upstart from the beginning. He blustered and posed and gave the impression of trying to appear above his station. However, there was this heart of gold underneath and we did begin to feel rather sorry for him at the end particularly when he had the grace to confess his sins. Glyn moved well and could have made even more of the 'huntin' shootin' and fishin' act that he put on. He aimed at the rather outrageous style necessary and was very funny indeed in parts. He snored amazingly well and showed his eye for the ladies with great ease. There were occasions when he allowed himself to be blocked on stage and this probably arose because he couldn't see himself. Glyn was convincing in the part and he had just enough of the upstart under the upper class veneer to make us slightly wary of his motives. All grist to the mill.

 

Elizabeth Hartley Trumpington.

 

Tracy seems to have cornered the market in Dolly birds from different periods, but she corners it so well. She really managed the change of class and manner between her real and assumed self extremely well and not only did she switch voice but movement and attitude. Tracy was also very good at reacting to what was going on and keeping herself well involved in the action even when she had nothing to do or say for some time. She managed to catch the larger than life style and consequently at times dominated the stage. Tracy has a good stage presence and certainly knows how to move and use her body language to suit the demands of the part. A very entertaining performance indeed.

 

Pierre Marceau

 

Mon Dieu, what an absolutely splendid French accent. Peter was most convincing and although we knew there had to be more to him than was apparent, he really delivered the French to the manner born. Peter had this slightly shifty and definitely smarmy attitude from the moment he came on stage and immediately aroused suspicions. His descent into petty criminal cockney was very funny and he too managed the two contrasting characters very well indeed. Peter managed to move with the style of a French man, helped no doubt by the twee little moustache, but he also convinced us that he could be a nasty piece of work. He did have the right level of playing in this part and we could easily have descended into hissing his villain as he showed his true nasty colours.

 

Miss Maple

 

Linda had a splendid reliability and security about her character and moved through the play with her buns and pots of tea like an unflappable aunt. The humour in her case was very much her visual appearance and the fact that she was useless at coming up with the answers. She played at the right level and managed her little give-away asides well, like `the Belgian gentleman'. The way she described the murders and the blood and horror in a voice ready for tea and cakes was just right and showed some good comic timing. I wasn't sure about Miss Maple's accent whether it was assumed or natural, but, it is difficult to see her as anything but oh so typically English.

 

Constable Tomkins

Steve has one of those faces that tells you everything he is thinking without trying and that skill, together with a dose of understated playing and a certain smugness, endowed this performance with terrific comedy. He was the perfect stooge for the Inspector and to a certain extent they were a true double act. Steve moved like a self satisfied policeman and had a voice that was full of 'I say I say' tones. He had an excellent sense of timing and made a real caricature out of his part.

 

Inspector Pratt

 

Graham had to be the pivot of this play and this he managed to do exceedingly well. The tone and humour springs much from his outrageous attitude and he certainly made the most of it. There was definitely an element of Peter Sellers in the playing thereof and this was just the style and attitude needed. Graham used his face and his ability to trip, fall, bump into things and in short being a walking disaster to excellent effect. We knew what we were up against from the moment he walked onto the stage and he held the audience from that moment. He has very good comic timing, from the way he took a phone call to dealing with his pipe, and he delivered his lines swiftly, picked up his cues well and made all his mistakes with names in a seemingly nonchalant and natural manner. I hope he is a better policeman in real life!

 

IN CONCLUSION

 

This proved to be a very entertaining evening enjoyed very much by the audience. The programme was also entertaining to read. There was an awful lot of disturbing noise when latecomers arrived which must have been off putting for all concerned. Perhaps, in future they could be let in quietly and pay in the interval, the porch is obviously too draughty to use as a box office. The outside of the hall has had a very smart face lift since I last saw it.

Eddie McKay