cat and canary cast

The Cat and the Canary

Derby Theatre


The Cat and the Canary, which launched on its nationwide tour with a week’s run at Derby Theatre, is promoted by the Classic Thriller Theatre Company (following on from the Agatha Christie) as a “Comedy-Thriller”. To which they add the word “chilling.”

As an average audience pleaser, you can’t really complain. The production trots along happily and amiably enough, there are indeed some creepy, scary, moments. It’s what you expect from (say) an Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh or Dorothy L. Sayers staging. The book is usually far more engaging and gripping than the stagework is, or perhaps can, be.

The intention here is good. In this new, well-meaning, enjoyable, relaxing, evening-off, not very demanding touring production - it will return (in between two northerly sorties-) to Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre from Monday 4 to Saturday 9 October - for all the cast’s vaunted stardom, even if there are periodic thrills, or something approaching them, there proved to be - initially at least - strikingly little of the “comedy”.

One must skim through the plot. Elderly, and now 20 years dead, paterfamilias, a Mr. West otherwise named elsewhere, self-admittedly something of a brute – as he declares his family members to be for a variety of reasons - summons his surviving relatives to hear a reading if his Will.

It hinges on a recording, in fact an LP or more likely 78 rpm. This sequence was notably well carried off, each character responding more or less differently. The later gramophone follow-up, when the villain (or one of them) discovers the ‘second’ chosen heir, who will inherit if the comely young lady who is the revealed legatee should lose her mind, is also great fun.

By stages, danger starts to threaten. How it evolves, and how gruesome it may gradually appear, is the main thrust of this min-saga. The Will engenders a rivalry, as they scramble, even having lost out, to manipulate the outcome and gather in the goodies.  

The best test of any comic element was the audience. Scarcely a laugh during Part One; rather more in Part 2, although mainly during one period when this adaptation – beneficial or not? Certainly, with a fair degree skimmed off it (why?) – this synthesis of John Willard’s late 1920s original script, filmed not less than four times, (originally as a Silent movie) briefly lifted itself up to provide something tickling - the haunting, or taunting, of the heroine, with the famed, ghoulish, hairy sinister hand reaching in through an apparent, but not actual, window, and in front of her eyes stealing – nicely not from under pillow, but here from around her neck – her newly acquired diamond necklace, aroused some titters. Not bad.

However, it was immediately followed by a classic snifter of feeble stagecraft of the kind that bedevilled this, in essence, ploddingly actoresque (you might say, how could it be otherwise?) production. Hearing her scream, everybody gathers in sympathy or puzzlement, anxiety or genuine fear; but they all arrive onstage at the same time, like bad Shakespeare, and their response, despite some stage busy-ness, is pretty trivial and nondescript.

britt and trace

Britt Ekland as Mrs Pleasant and Tracy Shaw as Annabelle.

Pictures: Paul Coltas 

What this surely exemplifies is a paucity of ideas; of invention, of freshness, of innovation: added or imported detail to beef up character; imaginative touches to tweak the emotional atmosphere; moves and timings that catch one by surprise. A sense of anticipation, a taste of the daunting.

To be fair, this was a thoroughly competent, commendable, true to form kind of 1950s “classic” staging that provided a not bad, but as has been recognised regarding the three surviving films (the eerie bits cry out for a silent context), a not overwhelmingly good yarn (Willard’s original has the potential to be far more “chillingly” adapted, if adapted or reduced it must be (where was Anabelle’s by Carl Grose’s treatment for Bill Kenwright’s company here); but it was breathtakingly plain, and largely undecorated, that is, developed.

Even with the counterpointing of characters and rival temperaments (arguments and fisticuffs in the first half, or acquiescence, withdrawal and resignation, or the volte-face, quite neatly carried off here, at the close), individual characters, moves, personalities were often almost interchangeable. 

True, some were brasher, more animated some more retiring. That at least was clear, and the latter renders the denouement that much more surprising. But it shows not just that during this production, directed, intermittently, by that distinguished, wholly admirable TV actor Roy Marsden, first and foremost that there is an art to putting onstage Agatha Christie or any other of the great whodunnit dramatists of her era, and that – pace The Mousetrap’s success - doing it blandly like this is not the way forward to dramatic meaningfulness, or a genuinely gripping theatrical experience.

The way the Derby Theatre carried plays, or Musicals, off (Sweeney Todd, Master Class, Into the Woods, or the Youth Theatre’s The Tempest), they might have been better off staging it themselves - although it’s as much of a challenge as any of Sondheim’s Musicals (Company was another).

Take the individual characters and backgrounds of the sundry participants (I nearly said combatants). It is the scrupulous definition, the salient contrasts between them which can enliven a staging so much; indeed is demanded. Variety in their characters is crucial.

In two or three instances that was outwardly achieved, most patently by Eric Carte as the solicitor, Crosby (a rather striking female role – Wendy Hiller - in the 1979 film); and above all, by the central figure, sort of heroine and nominated heir who is the only one still to bear the name West, Annabelle (Tracy Shaw, appealingly My Week With Marilyn-like), plus the Housekeeper ‘Mrs. Pleasant’ (the miraculous Beatrix Lehmann in 1978), to whom the great Britt Ekland, displaying seasoned intelligence (what on earth is she doing in this, the pay can’t be brilliant?) brings a Mrs. Danvers-like presence, doubtless deliberately scarcely varied at all after all (even Lehmann is limited too, in her case by graphic but overdone camera closeups).

cat cast2

Charlie, the actor (Ben Nealon), pretendedly sympathetic, but who will emerge as important at the end, is feisty, though essentially unaltering and unexplored (till the end). Ben Nealon (?Harry) hovers onstage, has a fight, then largely fades. The generous hearted Paul (Antony Costa) seems initially shy, even vapid, until near the end where, in a dialogue with Annabel, he serves up easily the most affecting sequence of the whole play (there is a series of such twosome exchanges, far better scripted, and almost as good).

There’s the Indian ‘princess’ (Priyasasha Kumari), who is merely demure and passive in the (seemingly cut) first sections, to her detriment and ours. What evidence do we have, in her demeanour, gait (wimpish) or actions, that she is (or isn’t) a subcontinent aristocrat, apart from the fact that she – and her protective, or always in attendance, aunt Susan (Marti Webb) two roles badly underwritten (in the first case, because of salient cuts, but the second equally uninvolved, like Honor Blackman, extraordinarily, in the film)

And what clear light is shed on, what insights offered into, the fact even that Annabelle is a celebrated writer they all cheer her for? Precious little.

It must be conceded that none of the available scripts is unflawed (1978 received from one reviewer just two stars). They may all be deemed something of a muddle; indeed one of the credits to this staging is that by playing it determinedly straight, Marsden made a rather good job of it.

Yet one must emphasise The Cat and the Canary, here too, does hit the mark much more appropriately in that more intimate last quarter, carrying off well the dramatic final turnaround, a kind of scampering riot and whirligig of the unexpected. The Greeks called it “peripeteia” – a revolution or sudden reversal, and certainly the director and cast’s management of the bizarre and unexpected provided a very involving and satisfying end.

The two sets are really very successful. The brown panelling or walling here by the seasoned designer takis (sic), very grand, seemed just right, and the well-judged retention of the top part, almost a Greek frieze, for the central bedroom (and haunting) scene was most apt, they scissored off what would otherwise be the top of flats glowering down like a sinister presence: the ancient house, or rather manor, dominating almost threateningly at this point. In earlier versions, it is approached by alligator infester water – echoing much of Florida nor Alabama.

The fact that we are in firmly proscenium setting means that to some extent, even in Derby’s front row, we were watching a box, and some of the actors’ difficulties in projecting their personal attributes is heavily loaded by this. On a projecting stage, each of these rather woodenly conceived people might have come across more forcefully and reinforced their contrasting temperaments with even greater differentiation (though they did manage some), and a fuller share of distinctness.

Gary Webster has a near walkon part as the Asylum Attendant. The Edward Fox role seems to have been axed, or reallocated/ Villain number one is meant to be shot – another wholly unforeseen feature - by the Housekeeper, who seemingly has known or divined everything; not simply arrested and marched off.

The admirable preface to the climax is the sweet exchange between demure, Paul, who quite illogically emerges as one of the bad men (not the “Cat” of the title, an escaped asylum inmate who is deemed to be the true nasty), and the touchingly dependent Annabel. Here at last we had some acting that would grace any professional stage. We were lucky it came, for it lifted this outwardly genial scripting to a level scarcely noticeable before. Would there had been more such, in text and in staging.

Worst of all is that theatres currently expect their audience to do without any kind of Programme. Surely a black and white sheet of A4 with cast and credits is not beyond their means. To 11-09-21

Roderic Dunnett


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