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

Murder kills off the distractions

Strictly Murder 

Highbury Theatre Centre, Sutton Coldfield


THIS Brian Clemens drama had me wondering where it was going for some considerable time. One puzzle was why that expensive-looking hat, put on top of the coat-stand before the interval, was still there when the second half of John Brenan's studio production started, purporting to be five months later.

As it happened, we did actually receive an explanation, but it turned out to be an explanation of convenience for the plot, rather than one that made any sort of sense. And we knew it was five months later because the young Englishwoman who had been two months pregnant before the interval had reached the seven-month mark immediately afterwards.

The pre-nylon stockings were convincing, but I was worried when the wine glass that had contained the poison was simply emptied, rather than thoroughly swilled. I sensed the forces of law and order being given a rather obvious clue.

What was referred to as an oil lamp looked to me as if it was a lamp with a candle in it. And the radio, which had no obvious wires, visible batteries outside it or space for outsize valves inside although these would have been the order of the day in France in 1939, developed an intriguing habit of suddenly turning itself on – on one occasion to announce the German invasion of Poland.

As it was France, we had the line that spoke of a pension with pretensions, with the French boarding house pronounced to rhyme with its English description, presumably at the direction of the author who must have quite liked the effect achieved by converting it into something paid by the government or a former employer – but it was a little odd. So was the line, “This could be vital – a straw to be snatched at.” I could imagine Dick Barton uttering it with feeling.

So there were first-night distractions – which made the company's successful bid to present an enjoyable evening all the more admirable. The second half in particular proved persuasive enough to prompt tensions and uncertain tummy feelings, all the way through to the twist at the end.

Malcolm Deathridge, playing the simple German Josef, is a frequent caller at the farm cottage of Peter and Suzy.

Things are looking a bit serious  for (left to right)  Malcolm Deathridge (with the gun), Christian Lewis (on the floor), Dan Payne, Michaela Morris (seated) and Marcelle Burnhope.

I did not work out why his second visit found him in different trousers from what he had been wearing very shortly beforehand, but it was fun to try to guess what he would bring with him next time he arrived, once he had turned up at different times with a rifle, flowers and a spade.

This is a sympathetic, sometimes amusing, portrait of a well-meaning simpleton unexpectedly involved in events beyond his comprehension, though his opening solo scene, in which he helped himself liberally to food and wine, goes on a bit too long.

Christian Lewis and Michaela Morris are strong as the central characters, unmarried but precociously a pre-war item – which means that she is saddled with the time-heavy line about being a scarlet woman. “If I were back in England, my friends and family would shun me.” She deserves her success – but must resist the urge to give that beautiful smile and special little wave in the direction of her special supporters at the end.

Christian Lewis is charged with the responsibility of keeping us uncertain about whether he is a goodie or a baddie. He meets it head-on, with a convincing towering rage a formidable part of his armoury.

Dan Payne and Marcelle Burnhope (Ross and Miriam) also give us plenty to ponder as the action moves to its climax.

Five pleasing performances make the production a winner. I knew all along that those distractions didn't really matter – but having tuned in to them, it was hard to tune out. To 6-3-10.

John Slim 

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