The Canterbury Players
Directed by Julie Broadbent
2019 marks the 70th anniversary of ‘The Canterbury Players’ – a most welcoming society in the heart of Flixton with a long-standing reputation in the local area.
Welcomed by a warm greeting (and a chocolate!) when first entering the Methodist Church Hall for the group’s astounding 151st production -Francis Durbridge’s House Guest, from the penmanship of the creator of Paul Temple, the audience knew that we were in for a thrilling night.
First performed in 1982 and set the 1980s, the story follows famous actor Robert Drury and his wife Stella, whose son has been kidnapped whilst away with his father on a business trip to Rome. Upon returning, two policemen arrive at the house -but are not all who they seem to be… Three on-stage murders later, this typical Durbridge thriller, which throws suspicion and intrigue upon every character, left the audience on the edge of their seats.
Bloodier than average -which audibly shocked some of the audience around me, there were enough twists and turns here for a whole mini-series. Whilst at times the complex narrative was quite difficult to follow and the denouement of the plot left a few of the audience scratching their heads, the Canterbury Players did well to achieve all they set out to question “who is in cahoots with whom.”
Rather than a gentle unravelling, there were no hints as to what could be happening: everyone was a suspect of the kidnapping, with diamond and drug smuggling thrown in to the last ten minutes. Not your usual ‘church hall’ thriller -especially with some of the choice vocabulary used.
Playing the helpless victims of the bizarre conspiracy were Damian McHugh as Robert and Linda Irish as Stella. Both with plenty to learn to carry the narrative, the pair worked together well to show a couple in frantic desperation, supporting each. Perhaps a little bit more light and shade to the variety of complex emotions they were experiencing would have been effective, but on the whole two very convincing performances which left the audiences feeling every ounce of sympathy for them.
Tension was continually ramped up in the production, especially on the arrival (well-timed doorbells galore!) of the creepily suave and commanding Arthur Hulse as General Crozier. Sadly, hi performance came to an untimely end when eliminated by the intimidating and threatening Robert Goodier as Burford. Lindsey Andrews and April Johnson both supported ably as Jane and Vivien respectively: leaving the audience wondering just how they could both be implicated in the crime -as necessary for a thriller such as this. We were meant to be scratching our heads, and indeed we were.
Comedy was provided by Charlie Roberts, whose po-faced killer Clayton had a penchant for drink and women -and a ‘no nonsense’ style to murdering. For me, the show was stolen by the comedic cameo performance of Ann Robinson as cousin Dorothy. A typical ‘nosey neighbour’ character, hapless in employment -unsurprising due to her ditsy nature, played well and a light relief from the murders around her.
Although, perhaps due to the limitations of the stage of the church hall stage (with perhaps the fastest tab track I’ve ever seen!) suffering at times a little from static direction and awkward positionings behind a sofa, the cast effectively conveyed the story and tension of a family ripped apart by completely surreal circumstances.
A 1980s feel to the house was well attempted with clear decorations and good attention to the props (especially the well-stocked bar!) However, for me, this production would have benefited from a sharper focus in terms of the domineering sofa and chair on set which were distinctly out of place in a ‘celebrity’ home (in St George’s Hill, no less) of the 1980s. The attempt at shabby-chic antique did not showcase the family’s important social positioning, which makes them a target for the whole piece.
Taking up most of the stage, the settee was distinctly at odds with the rest of the set and did not give the impression of wealth or celebrity of a woman who was willing to lend a stranger £20,000 “when the banks open on Monday.”
Lighting effects were minimal but effectively conveyed a sense of night and day and a passage of time and music cues underlined tense part of the narratives sharply and were well executed. Linking music between scenes and during the quick closing of tabs were appropriately 1980s and ranged from James Bond themes to Madness, in keeping with the narrative of the previous scene. I particularly liked the telephone actually ringing on stage! If this was a sound effect, it’s execution was one of the best I’ve heard. Well done to Bill Palmer for his responsibility for both the sound and lighting in this production.
One criticism which I feel that I must address is the prompt (Julie Birchenough) actually sitting in front of the audience. Whilst not all societies use a prompt for show week, some prefer to have the safety net “just in case.” This is absolutely fine, and of course prompts are sometimes needed, however I do not think they should be almost in the audience. Partially hidden by a screen, the use and masking of the prompt is something I suggest could be considered for future productions, as the cue lines both visibly and audibly being given were rather a distraction - especially with the actors looking for the cue within the first ten minutes of the action.
With another psychological thriller lined up for later in their season, the Canterbury Players’ production of ‘House Guest’ achieved its purpose and left us all wondering ‘whodunnit?’
Thank you for your very warm hospitality. I look forward to your forthcoming season and continuing the celebrations of your 70th year!