Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Murder at Warrabah House, performed by Australian company SNAFU Theatre, is an innovative one-actor show that plays with and confounds all the expectations of a 1920s country house murder mystery. The host of colourful characters are all well-crafted by the talented Felicity Hopkins, and the twists and turns of the script are unexpected, clever, and simple.
Murder at Warrabah House is a country house murder mystery with all the requisite characters: rich patriarch, impecunious relative, suspicious servant, all-seeing detective. There is even the classic denouement scene in which the detective gathers the suspects in the drawing room. There are, however, a few key differences from the Mousetrap-style staples of the British stage, which make it stand out from the genre as a unique piece of theatre. Firstly, the entire cast of characters is played by one actor: the talented Felicity Hopkins transforms her voice and physicality astonishingly, populating the stage with over eight clear individual characters. Secondly, the story is narrated by the sister of the detective, a powerful female figure in this 1920s setting, and she becomes more involved and influential in the events of the play than the passive and dim-witted Watson and Hastings ever did. Thirdly, the twists in the plot are so unexpected that the story does exactly what the blurb says: it ‘turns the country house murder mystery genre on its head’ with stylish neatness.
The play, created by Melbourne-based company SNAFU Theatre, is set in a country house in 1920s Australia, in which a missing necklace leads acclaimed detective Arthur Parish and his sister Hattie, the play’s narrator, into a crime story of unexpected twists and turns. The company have understood and mastered the genre, and pay it the perfect tribute by reinventing and reinvigorating it – not just replicating it. The writing is tight and sophisticated: well-formed characters neatly framed by the absorbing narrative voice of the savvy Hattie. Felicity Hopkins’ performance is slick, measured and engaging, her simple, economic shifts between characters astonishingly clear and specific without ever being exaggerated. The design does not encroach into Hopkins’ performance, but enhances the story and setting with a few pieces of period furniture and objects for her to interact with, though most of the objects mentioned in the story are mimed or imagined, becoming just as visible through Hopkins’ performance as the characters she plays.
I have seen and read a lot of detective stories and plays and was stunned by Murder at Warrabah House. Its clever and simple originality pays homage to the genre whilst doing something entirely new. I thought the choice to create a host of characters using one actor was an inspired idea, an immense challenge from writing, directing and acting points of view, but a challenge that was overcome with breath-taking success. It is an unfortunate time slot for the show – 22.35 being more conducive to success for a comedy gig than theatre, which is perhaps why the small auditorium was not full. This is a shame: it is a truly excellent show that deserves to be playing to full capacity.
To be original in such a well-worn genre as murder mystery theatre is an astonishing feat in itself, and Murder at Warrabah House manages to be innovative in a number of different ways. It breaks conventions whilst respecting and being deeply subsumed in the genre; the writing and performance are of a consistent high quality throughout the piece; and the audience left the auditorium in awe, which is why I am rating this show at a highly recommended 5 stars.