Murder in Review

‘MURDER DEFERRED’ by Stuart Ready

Directed by Annie Norris
Asst. Director: Vicky Pearce

The atmosphere in St Francis Church Hall tonight was palpable, partly from an audience set up for an evening of murder mystery but as much from the incredible heat of an evening that proved summer had finally arrived. Windows and doors were open wide, which carried with it issues themselves (see below), but for a number of audience members it couldn’t allay the stifling atmosphere of such a warm evening, although I was surprisingly comfortable in my seat just underneath one of the windows. Nonetheless, despite the heat, the scene was set for ‘Murder Deferred’ by the enigmatic Stuart Ready, the 92nd production of the Matchbox Theatre Company. And what a scene it was, a truly engaging set designed by Michael Downing which drew the eye to its many subtleties and nuances, an effective recreation of one of the rooms in The Hay Wain inn where the action of this play was to take place. Dressed with all manner of trinkets representing the clutter and curios inherited by its owner, Mrs Leila Markham, it was a striking point of interest and drew the eye as we waited for the show start.

Now, I feel I have to make it clear from the off that I found the script very difficult to connect with. Although a fairly engaging mystery involving a murder, although not really a murder mystery per se, Mr Ready’s ear for the spoken word leaves something to be desired. At times the piece sounded like a sub-par episode of ‘Dickson of Dock Green’ with its ‘Gor blimeys’ and ‘Lawks alive’ flavourings. I almost expected a finale redolent with ‘You’s are never gonna take me alive you bloomin’ coppers’ though we were spared that. Suffice to say that there is probably good reason why Mister Ready has been consigned to the dustiest and gloomiest reaches of the internet and, it seems, Samuel French’s catalogue, only to be uncovered every few years. Victoria Pearce’s entertaining and amusing summary in the programme provided a few morsels of food for thought on this matter and I hope that it will be published on the blog some time for others to share. All this said though, I know that both Vicky and Annie had carried out a significant reworking of the script that spared us the worst of his ramblings and, despite all the above, provided for a solid evening of theatre.

The events of the play unfold over the space of a weekend and take in all the familiar staples of mystery visitors, blackmail, revelations from the past and, of course, murder, in this case deferred. At the heart of this intrigue are the aforementioned Mrs Markham and her mysterious visitor and blackmailer Ruth Cousins who comes with knowledge of her, seemingly shady, past. Played ably by the reliable duo of Kay Isom and Gillian Challenger there was a spark between the two which reminded me of their first class interactions in ‘Under the Stars’ a few years ago. They work well together and proved a compelling watch as the relationship between them unfolded. Gill, in particular, clad in black (much kudos for that in the current heat wave) exuded a cocky bravura and confident menace that controlled the stage whenever she entered. She was, as said, well matched by Kay whose talents I much admire and who has often convinced me of the ‘reality’ of the many roles she has played in the past. Although she seemed a little hamstrung by the dialogue she was stuck with tonight and very occasionally I found myself not quite as wholly immersed in her performance as is customary, she nonetheless once again demonstrated herself an actress possessed of a broad emotional range and presence at those moments when truly required.

In solid support were a number of faces old and new. Dot Pullan, fresh from her success in March’s ‘Talking Heads’, played local antique dealer Minnie Akers with a degree of assuredness and eccentricity that engaged, as often she does in these kind of parts. A key player in sorting out the mystery, she proved eminently watchable during the unfolding climax and denouement and no mean gunslinger as well, although maybe slightly lacking in the control so effectively demonstrated recently, as events unravelled. Another veteran from ‘Talking Heads’, Joan Evans, occupied the role of Mrs Bolders effortlessly. This character part offered a chance to demonstrate a little humorous byplay and, as always, was ever watchable despite the role being more of a cameo than anything else. Clive Moss, who I have not seen on the Matchbox boards for quite a few years now, provided reliable support as Colonel Fountain a local JP who brings some degree of legal presence to the proceedings. Another character part, Clive’s performance was typically sound and gives me hope that we will see more of him on The Matchbox stage at some point in the future.
Rounding off the cast were its two younger members. Welcome back was Sarah Challenger Francis who played the small but significant role of Trudi, the Swiss au pair who was helping out at the pub. Accomplished in every way, she was concentrated and controlled and inhabited the role at all times she was on stage; she also delivered a pretty proficient accent as well, though not, as one audience member said, Swedish! And talking of accents: the cast was completed by newcomer to the group Charles Langdon in the role of Irishman Mick Clancy, who gave a great rendering of an Irish brogue. Again the role was not sizeable, though hugely significant, but Charles certainly made it his own and occupied the stage space with a confidence and, at times, menacing air, that seemed at the core of this character. He is certainly an actor who could have a bright future with the group.

Much credit must be given to Annie and Vicky in their directorial roles. I am well aware that there were a number of problems involving play choice and needs must and the two certainly took on the challenge of a problematic play with gusto. That they produced a cohesive and, yes, engaging despite the writing and the heat, evening of theatre is a testament to their hard work and vision. A particular nod must go to the new epilogue which provided a twist overlooked in the original and drew audible gasps from the audience once revealed, a modest though striking ‘coup de theatre’ on which to end the night. Sound and lighting were also effectively employed, unobtrusive and subtle, in keeping with this kind of play, and helped to preserve an atmosphere which was occasionally in danger of being disrupted by glimpses of actors moving past open doors or the wretched gurgling of water pipes. Such irritations were, of course, beyond the control of any and proved but minor in the grand scheme of things.

As I made clear earlier, this was no bad night of theatre and proves once again the talents that the group has, even with, in my own humble opinion, a lacklustre script. There was entertainment to be had here and even a thought or two to be provoked. There can be no question that this was a good opportunity for Annie to cut her teeth in the director’s chair and, from what I understand, as was said in the after show, once you have occupied it you can never get away. I sincerely hope that she will find her way back to it again very soon.