Old friend makes a welcome return

Just one more thing Doc: Columbo (John Guerrasio, left) has one more question for Dr Fleming ( Brian Capron)

Prescription: Murder

Lichfield Garrick


IT IS 51 years now since the good lieutenant solved his first case, which incidentally happened to be this very same one, but there seems to be no signs of him showing his age on this performance.

Columbo – first name Frank apparently – revels in his own whodunits but as we have seen the crimes committed we are left indulging in what his creators called howcatchems – watching how the crumpled lieutenant with the equally crumpled cigar finds the clues to sink the baddies before the credits.

I saw this revival at the Grand last year with Dirk Benedict, Face from the A-Team, in the title role. Benedict, as a name, was good for bums on seats and was an excellent Columbo so when he left the run late last year he left big, if rather scruffy, shoes to fill but highly respected New York actor John Guerrasio manages that with aplomb.

He is recognisable as the Columbo we all know and love but this is no Stars in Their Eyes performance, he adds his own touches to the shambling detective and make him his own. This is Guerrasio' Columbo, not a Peter Falk impression.

Set against him is Brian Capron, well known as serial killer Richard Hillman from Coronation Street, who is putting all the homicidal experience to good use as Doctor Fleming, the scheming psychiatrist who is pitting his wits against the forgetful working class detective who looks like a failed Big Issue seller.

Helping the Doc out is assistant DA and Governor hopeful Dave Gordon, played with an arrogant officiousness by Richard Walsh who is perhaps best known from London's Burning.

The women in the doc's life are Claire his wife, Alexandra Boyd, who dies remarkably well, and Susan Hudson, his bit on the side, played with leggy loveliness by Elizabeth Lowe. Meanwhile in the office keeping he practice going is Miss Petrie, Karren Winchester who, like everyone English in this fine production., keeps her accent rock solid. She sounds like Dorothy in Golden Girls incidentally if anyone is thinking of a revival in that direction.

Our good, but really bad, doctor is finding his wife a little inconvenient so decides to commit the perfect crime with the assistance of his young actress lover Susan.

Perfect crimes are bread and butter to Columbo though and for the audience there follows a very entertaining evening to see just how our crumpled cop is going to find the holes he knows are always hidden somewhere in anything perfect.

As he says criminals get one chance to get it right while cops have 100 chances a year – so they have more practice.

The cast keep the underlying tension going with Capron managing to show flashes of the violence lurking beneath the urbane surface of the psychiatrist while Guerrasio's Columbo is never quite finding the answers he seeks but is always tantalisingly close enough to keep everyone on their toes and thinking.

It is a well structured play and despite the fact we know the perps, as these US cop types now say,  it manages a little twist near the start and a bigger one at the end to make sure the audience are paying attention which a few "Ooooohs" and "Aaaahs" proved they were.

The play is from the Middle Ground Theatre Company who brought us my favourite play of last year, Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune and this latest production will enhance further their already high reputation.

Columbo is one of the most instantly recognizable fictional detectives in history and in many ways the play is now a tribute to Peter Falk, who created the role we love to the extent that to the world he is Lieutenant Columbo. Sadly Falk, now 83, suffers from advanced Alzheimer's and cannot even remember the role let alone playing it. We wish him well.

The play runs to 26-02-11.

Roger Clarke

Just one more thing . . . 

It was in 1960 that prolific US character actor Bert Freed appeared as the first Columbo in Enough Rope, an hour long episode in the popular and live - actors in the 60s still lived dangerously - Chevy Mystery Theatre TV series.

There was obviously enough rope for writers Bill Link and Richard Levinson to expand it to a play in 1962 with a new title, Prescription: murder and a new Columbo, Hollywood and Broadway star Thomas Mitchell. It was to be his last role. The 70-year-old died of bone cancer in December the same year.

The play opened in January 1962 in San Francisco at the start of a successful  25 week run.. The producers had a hit on their hands and wanted to head to Broadway. The writers knew the third act was weak though and needed rewriting but the cantankerous Mitchell, who was dying although he did not know it, did not want to learn new lines and refused to allow any changes. Link and Levinson threatened an injunction not wanting their first Broadway play to have obvious imperfections.  

With a star who refused to change and writers who refused to take a play with an ending that didn't work to the bright lights of New York, Prescription: murder never made it to Broadway. The last performance was in Boston in May.

In the original Joseph Cotton as the doctor was the big Hollywood star, the marquee name, so at the end was duty bound to show his redeeming qualities, his underlying humanity, confessing his crime to Columbo almost as if to a priest, full of remorse for his lost, true love. A star the stature of Cotton couldn't be seen as all bad after all - even if his redemption fitted into the plot like a glove on a fish.

A few years later the writers heard Universal were looking for TV movie ideas and Prescription: murder was dusted off and arrived in Hollywood as a TV script, an early example of recycling, with the writers suggesting Lee J Cobb or Bing Crosby as Columbo.

Luckily for us Cobb was unavailable and Crosby turned it down so director Richard Irving convinced them the relatively young Peter Falk could play the role in the 1968 TV film and the rest as they say – well eventually as they say after a second pilot by an unconvinced NBC in 1971 – is history.

The current ending of the play incidentally is not the original but the one from the first TV movie, the ending the writers wanted for Broadway all those years ago. In this final version the good doctor is anything but and the real star, which audiences spotted straight away on that 25 week tour in 1962, was, and is still, Columbo. 


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