Napier Repertory Players / Napier Little Theatre, McGrath St / 20 February to 7 March / By Jess Soutar Barron
Serious Trigger Warning: This show goes there. What you think might come next but probably won’t because of decorum and all that, definitely does, and it’s shocking when it happens. Agatha Christie-penned, this 1930s romp from Napier Rep has all the scattered clues, red herrings and glasses of scotch you need for a great night out.
Ten people stuck on an island with an unseen murderer and an ominous riddle. “Two corpses in the house by 9 o’clock in the morning and all you can say is, ‘Let’s have a drink!’” Audiences must almost be done with these nods to the Home Country, laughing at our silly ol’ bored-Brit expat selves, but while it’s still here – and a supper show too – let’s enjoy it.
Culturally we have been reacquainted with this time and tone thanks to Downton, and where ten years ago it’d feel all terribly old fashioned, now it seems almost on trend, certainly so after a weekend of Deco frivolities.
In some ways it’d be cliché except it’s the original: the base material for Cluedo invented only a few years after this show’s first outing, and for Knives Out released only last year. Every murder mystery, every isolated stately pile, every gathering of strangers brought together under shadowy circumstances, owes its DNA to this common ancestor.
What a pleasure and a delight to see it played straight, set and dressed of the era. Full credit to the crew too, excellent use of candles, with the most terrifying parts happening in the pitch black, off stage left.
The two lynchpins of the piece deliver excellent performances that last the distance and build the tension. Hayley Munro as secretary Vera Claythorne alongside Glenn Cook as cad Phillip Lombard do well to develop their characters across a gamut of twists, turns and arcs while maintaining control. Accents and eccentricities are suitably stereotyped to match the style of the piece: the working-class drawl, the cut-glass of the rake, even the juvenile impediment of the toff.
The dialogue hasn’t really aged and pokes fun at some familiar traits “I bet she had a cup of tea…that type always does,” says one, mid-murder, and another: “At my time of life I have no interest in ‘thrills’.”
John Chalmers, Rob Dallas and James Macintosh each hold space and maintain the central core of their characters while leaving opportunity for others to weave intrigue around them. And without meaning any offense it’s a delight to see so many men of a certain age on the stage together.
Blocking is static in places, most noticeably in segues between well-polished set-pieces, but the play comes from a time when audiences were more familiar with chunky dialogue and less so with action-packed drama.
It was a sensible choice to play this as straight as they have. This at-pace piece as a parody would have been exhausting and challenging to maintain convincingly. And it would have been tempting to do it that way. Here the suspense has some moments of lightness where summoning some Noel Coward wouldn’t’ve gone amiss but, as a whole, it’s a riveting whodunnit. A Jolly Good Show as they say.
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