Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Mark Fletcher as Brian, Sean Mulkeen as David, Emma Woodcock as Jennifer and Valerie Tomlinson as Corinne. Pictures: Alastair Barnsley

Dead Man’s Hand

Highbury Theatre Centre


Seymour Matthews’ thriller is a bit of a buy one get one free sort of play with a plot that could have been taken straight from the Agatha Christie playbook.

It travels down the well-trodden path of a play within a play format, starting with one play then moves on to another, the real life bit, and then mixes both plays up as characters start to go down like nine pins, one by one, á la And Then There Were None.

The problem with thriller reviews is making sure you don’t give too much away, not that Matthews gives any clues to be going on with. Whodunnits need a few hints, a few red herrings, a few blind alleys to keep an audience on their toes.

Here we are as much in the dark as the cast until the final reveal, which, if we are honest, would require extraordinary powers of clairvoyancy far beyond mere mortals to have guessed from what had gone before, but that being said, it is fun getting there.

The play opens as Jennifer and Brian Stevens arrive at an isolated Italian villa for an all-expenses paid holiday courtesy of failed TV executive Brian’s mysterious partner, a Greek shipping tycoon no one seems to have ever met.

If that seems a bit dodgy, how about when bent councillor David Lacey and his wife Corinne turn up as well for an expenses paid holiday, all courtesy of a thank you, or bribe according to a rather disapproving Corinne, from the same Greek tycoon.

Then up pops estate agent Franco who has had a double puncture on his way back from a viewing at a villa where the client failed to show, the client . . . a Greek etc. Creepy or what? Then the body count starts to rise . . .


Andy Tomlinson as the director Frank explains his thoughts to Mark Fletcher, now as actor Martin, and Sean Mulkeen who is now in the role of Derek 

But is all as it seems? Sadly, what seems to be an interesting thriller suddenly changes direction and we are in another play, or maybe not, as five journeymen actors, and an uninspiring company manager find themselves rehearsing in the small private theatre in a country mansion, all hired by the owner, some bloke nobody has met or even spoken to . . . ring a bell anyone?

Now, apart from the fact this lot seem a bit gullible, rehearsing a play, The Domino Man, written by the bloke who hired them, for just one performance, with no one yet been paid, it is an interesting twist, especially when the body count starts to rise again, this time in reverse order to the expiry dates in the Italian job.

So, who is the killer? That would be telling – but, unlike Matthews, I’ll give you a clue. Whoever you think it might be will probably be wrong – in fact if you can guess the who and why and solve the whole mystery, then let me know and I’ll go halves with you on a lottery ticket.

Now if that sounds complicated, wait until you start on the cast. We have Emma Woodcock who plays actress Kate Brotherson, with a bit of a reputation but who tells us she is not like that, who in turn plays Jennifer.

Then there is Mark Fletcher, who plays actor Martin Smith, a man who has returned from Australia after eight years, with a down under twang to his voice. He is the quietest spoken of the group, quietly speaking to the point of boring, and he plays Brian,

Sean Mulkeen is Derek, an actor with an ego that dwarfs his talent, who spends his days sparring with Kate, moaning about being on the dole, moaning about working, his latest job being as the corrupt councillor David while Valerie Tomlinson is the quiet, and somewhat unreliable actress Angela who in turn is playing the disapproving Corinne.

Andy Tomlinson is Frank, who is also the director of the Italian job, where he plays Franco. He is doing his best to get the disparate band in some sort of order, a job made no easier when one of the cast goes missing only to be found, having taken a permanently final bow, by company manager, (responsible for lights, sound, props, tea . . .) Pamela Fox, played on the edge of panic by Val Goode as death seems to be stalking the cast. 


Val Goode as Pamela Fox with Derek and Martin as the body count mounts

The tension builds well twice, first in the play’s other play, and then in its own moment of terror, the play’s own play . . . if you see what I mean.

The dénouement is a little wordy but it has its moments as the threads are drawn together and the reasons all become clear. It is a well worked twist with a few extra tweaks and even a hint of Victorian melodrama thrown in, just to keep you on your toes.

A pity that some uncertainty in this early performance tended to slow momentum as it is a play which needs a good pace to carry the tale, and the audience, along and at times it went missing.

The set, designed by Malcolm Robertshaw, is, as usual, excellent while Alastair Barnsley’s sound and Andrew Noakes’ and Marion Chittenden’s lighting add to the drama, culminating in a huge thunderstorm finale.  

Once the gremlins are ironed out, and momentum flows then this is an enjoyable thriller with a few laughs along the way. Directed by Liz Parry, you can watch one play and get another one thrown in for free, all at the same time, to 11-05-19.

Roger Clarke


Dead Man’s Hand was supposedly the hand held by Wild Bill Hickcok when he was murdered back in 1876 in Deadwood, Dakota Territory aged just 39.

The only problem is that no one is sure what the hand was. Black eights and Aces is one theory,  three jacks and a pair of tens . . . or sevens . . . or eights is another while the son of a man who it is said was there and who was said to have the actual cards, claimed it was “the ace of diamonds with a heel mark on it; the ace of clubs; the two black eights, clubs and spades, and the queen of hearts with a small drop of Hickok's blood on it.”

Whatever the hand, perhaps best not to consider playing five card stud in Nuttal & Mann's Saloon, Deadwood if you are ever out that way. 

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