The Agatha Christie Theatre Company enjoyed outstanding popular and critical success over the past decade, touring the Queen of Crime’s plays, most recently, “And Then There Were None,” at the King’s Theatre last October. (Edinburgh Guide review: “This vintage whodunnit blends stylish glamour with gruesome violence. Dexter meets Cluedo”.)
Bill Kenright has now created The Classic Thriller Theatre Company to produce exciting new plays. Their debut production, “Rehearsal for Murder” is adapted from the 1982 American TV drama by Richard Levinson and William Link, best known for such long-running series Murder, She Wrote and Columbo.
The setting is a London West End theatre and the curtain rises to reveal the backstage brick walls, exit sign, ladders, table and chairs covered in dustsheets. Ernie the stage door manager appears, switching on lights to welcome Alex Dennison, a playwright, and his new young assistant Sally, carrying a bundle of scripts.
Waiting for his cast of actors to arrive, Alex tells Sally about the tragic death of his fiancée, Monica, a film star, exactly one year earlier. It had been the First Night of his new Comedy, and he describes how nervous he had been – would the audience laugh? what would the critics say about Monica's performance? Alex enjoys taking a side swipe at theatre reviewers in general!.
Suicide was the verdict of Monica's death at the time, but Alex is not at all convinced.
And now he has invited the same ensemble of actors, director and producer back to the theatre for a rehearsed reading of his new play. The plot is familiar to all as selected scenes re-enact key events backstage during that first night performance the year before.
Agatha Christie’s novel “Sparkling Cyanide” has a similar plot, where seven guests are invited to a dinner party, returning to the crime scene a year later as murder suspects. Likewise, Alex has gathered his cast, planning to trap Monica’s killer: “The play’s the thing, Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,”
Robert Daws takes the central role of Alex like an MC directing proceedings, a man with a serious mission. Curiously, he wears a Rupert Bear-styled scarf tightly wrapped around his neck, almost strangling him. Monica (deceased) is played by Amy Robbins who has the challenge of being a ghostly presence with glamorous poise, often in shadowy gloom. As Bella, the play’s producer, Susan Penhaligon portrays a formidable grande dame, a win or lose gambler for theatrical success.
The problem is that the other minor characters do not have a plausible, rounded personality, merely “actors” in this play within a play, resulting in overly mannered, actorly caricatures. With a script of all words and no action, they permanently stand in a semi-circle like a row of bowling alley skittles.
“Rehearsal for Murder” lacks any sense of atmospheric suspense or dramatic tension - crucially, the actual murder scene does not surprise or shock at all. The audience should be on the edge of their seats, exclaiming aloud with audible screams and a united “aaah!”
This production by the Classic Thriller Theatre Company offers an evening of light entertainment which, unfortunately, is neither classic nor thrilling.
Monday 21 to Saturday 26 March, 2016
Murder Mystery fans take note - Agatha Christie’s play, “The Mousetrap” returns to the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh in October. Highly recommended.