Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Murder in Play” which is at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 29 June 2013
There’s a very knowing line in Simon Brett’s drama-within-a-drama when the on-stage theatre director says, “Anything with the word Murder in the title; that’s what people want!”
It’s strangely true that audiences are irresistibly attracted to murder mysteries (as Agatha Christie so fortuitously discovered) and Ian Dickens’ summer play season at Wolverhampton Grand is capitalising on our passion for who-dun-its by doing two of them. In this case however, the detection of the murderer isn’t terribly important; for the purpose of the play is purely to provide an entertaining evening of knockabout humour.
Plays about threadbare theatre companies putting on a play are a familiar device. Shakespeare used it to both comic and tragic ends, and Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” is still touring the planet 30 years on.
Simon Brett has a lot of fun with his 1993 contribution to the gentle lampooning of the genre by pushing the joke several steps further. Almost everyone has a motive for murder and more than once we are not entirely sure whether we are watching the play itself or a rehearsal for the play within it. The show is so riddled with amateur dramatic clichés, the trick is to just let go and soak up the laughs.
For the record, the plot revolves around a philandering director and a bottle of agricultural Paraquat. Or is it a missing carving knife? Or a convicted murderer who has just escaped from a local jail? Or possibly one of two (or three?) love triangles.
It’s a credit to the cast that they make the most of the mayhem whilst maintaining just enough clarity. Katie Manning is a great comic turn as a faded soap star, bitterly back on the boards. She can swing from farcical humour (when irrationally ordered to play her part “older”) to sensitive pathos (when a saucy centre-page spread from her youth is uncovered). And the legs are still lovely, darling.
The scenes between the two “Eastenders” escapees, Dean Gaffney and Gemma Bissix (pictured), rise above the mêlée like cream in a bottle of gold top. Suddenly there is a thread of quality drama in this patchwork play as Brett turns to Hamlet for his denouement; ham-fisted, though, it is.
Incidentally, for fans of Tom Stoppard, Gaffney delivers one absolutely fabulous “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” joke, which had Bard buffs in bits.
But my overwhelming feeling was that the audience is never quite allowed to know where they are with this play. Is some of the acting meant to be that bad? Was David Callister (as director Boris Smolensky) supposed to fall off the stage and did Dean Gaffney purposely spill coffee over his dinner jacket twice?
Ultimately there’s a kind of gentlemen’s agreement between company and customers to put all other considerations aside. It’s the laughs that matter, and there are barrels of them
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