Association of Community Theatre
Show Reviews November 2017
STONE COLD MURDER
by James Cawood
In my wanderings over the last few years on behalf of ACT, I have seen very few old fashioned Agatha Christie type, traditional murder mysteries. They do exist because the ones I have seen have been very enjoyable, and they were a deciding factor for the committees some time ago whose job it was to select the season’s productions, so two comedies and one whodunnit became standard fare to maximise ‘bums on seats’ for many of the smaller companies particularly. Things have changed vastly over the years – choice is unlimited and so varied, topics and themes are on all subjects, publicity and advertising within the grasp of all of us and murder stories can be so clever, twisted, violent, complicated and different. This one falls into the final description, is different and completely enthralling.
It is a four hander and takes place in a cosy little hotel remote somewhere in the Lake District (Scafell Pike is mentioned, I think). Two newlyweds, Robert and Olivia Chappell, have moved in and are hoping to make a go of it in the tourism, bed and breakfast business.
The set is cleverly designed and built, quite palatial looking and I feel sure people would feel like Eveline and me, that we could be happy living there. There were stairs in the corner UR with a clever turn towards the top where one could watch what was going on downstairs and remain inconspicuous. Patio windows USC and entrance door DSR. SR was a check-in counter and nearby a publicity stand containing pamphlets, photos and books presumably of the locale, as there was on the wall behind the counter. Pictures of landscape dotted around the walls gave local interest views around the Lakes. A splendid wood burning stove SL and drawers with a selection of drinks on it and a comfortable settee and expensive looking wooden framed chair completed the furniture, while a spectacular chimney breast gave the impression of ruling the room from behind the stove SL. Well done – Lee McGregor, Ian Wilkinson and their team; Victoria Worsley; and the army of experts working backstage in support. It couldn’t have been done without you all.
The plot is an extremely complicated one, which keeps the audience guessing throughout most of the story. Nothing is as it seems and surprise follows surprise virtually continually. It is easy to say now when one has been kept on the edge of one’s seat all night and now knows the outcome, but one has the feeling almost immediately that all is not as it seems. Initially, of course, it is only a feeling but as our actors throw red herrings at us all night, we start to suspect and conclude, only to have our theories banished and we have to start “putting two and two together” all over again. Even when “deaths” start happening we are no nearer than we were before.
Our four actors have to be applauded unreservedly for the quite memorable way in which they kept us guessing. Never once out of character, they told their stories so believably that we, in our turn, believed every word they said. We were watching actors at the top of their game, but could somehow easily believe, that they weren’t actually actors at work at all, but real people caught up in some deadly real life drama.
At the end of their first season as owners of a small Lake District hotel, Robert and Olivia settle down for a well-earned drink to discuss things and make plans. Something seems to be troubling Olivia and she seems to be reluctant to talk to Robert about it. Their quiet evening is interrupted by the arrival of a hiker, who has become lost and requires bed and breakfast. Here again there is something intangible which makes us wary of him, despite his cheerfulness, sociability and offers of help. He is left alone finishing his drink, when his hosts retire to bed and the we know our unexplained doubts were justified as we watch him, rifling through drawers and obviously looking for something. Fortunately, Robert observes his nefarious activities, but strangely, also allows them to go on unchallenged and remains in his eyrie at the top of the stairs. Could this have something to do with Olivia’s past? When another visitor arrives, somewhat explosively her worst nightmare has caught up with her.
Olivia was played by Lorna Kong and she coped well with this difficult, vitally important role, with consummate flair and a deal of emotion, which the part called for. There was obviously some dark secret in her past which she felt she had to keep hidden and one could see and, in many ways, feel the pressure she was under. She tried resolutely to set Robert’s mind at rest by dancing together romantically but her heart wasn’t in it and her secret was nagging away at her. So difficult for an actress, in this situation like this, to be convincing, but Lorna made us feel unsettled with her. She loves Robert and doesn’t want him to feel badly of her, but there is a mysterious Sam lurking somewhere in her memory. As the story builds and dramatic, violent surprises suddenly happen, the effect on her is memorably shown and Lorna deals with her characterisation with truth and great integrity. The character left on stage on her own finally is a fitting memory to take away from this story. Well played.
Her husband, Robert, is played by Ash McDowell, and he gives the position great depth of feeling as the loving husband whose only concern is for his wife, her happiness and the success of their bed and breakfast business as they reach the end of their first season. Olivia is obviously worried about something and Ash plays the loving husband with true realism and care for the woman in his life. I use the word “realism” purposely because, as the story builds, Ash has to undergo the most dramatic change of character imaginable, and without giving the ingenious plot away for readers who may wish to see the play in the future, let me say that his double-edged character was well conceived and so believably played. Well done!
Ramsay, the stranded hiker, was in the capable hands of Lee McGregor. Sociable, friendly, reasonable, grateful, Lee showed all the qualities one would expect from someone who had been through his story and the consequent problem he was now faced with. Yet so clever and detailed was his description of his predicament, that one couldn’t help but have just an undefined feeling that he wasn’t telling Olivia and Robert everything. We realised we were right when he was left on his own after they had gone to bed, and he did his systematic search, but why didn’t Robert do something instead of just watching from his hiding place? A well constructed characterisation from Lee which helped considerably to keep the audience guessing and maximise their interest in this quite incredible story. Well done!
Ian Tyler was Sam who had been mentioned earlier by Olivia and obviously had played some part in her history. To say that his first entrance was unexpected would be true but the suddenness and the ferocity of it, plus the control and the influence it had on the second act was a triumph of the ability of the four actor’s art. It set the standard for the rest of the play and Ian controlled the pace and where it went and how this complicated story turned out. He even managed to profess his love for Olivia in an acceptable way that made us believe him. He played the villain with heart and soul and I, for one was glad he didn’t live in Bury. Here was a character your team of actors could play off and the team spirit shown by the cast was splendid. His command of the stage was remarkable.
This difficult, complicated play was directed by Val Middleton-Egan and she had drawn from her cast the essence of what this story needed – interest, surprises, excitement and belief. The physically aggressive moments saw an originality, illustrating the ideas of a director who cared and who produced a murder story with a compelling difference. Well done.
Congratulations to everyone involved both on or off stage.
Many thanks for your welcome and hospitality. Happy playmaking.