Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Horace Fewbanks is found dead in his Hampstead home, and there are all manner of suspects. Inspector of Scotland Yard is keen to solve the crime before dashing gentleman detective Montague Crewe, but his bumbling ways (and hiding of the clues) may well be his undoing. This is good, thrilling fun that manages to be both breathless and tongue in cheek.
That exclamation mark in the title should give you a pretty good clue as to the winking style this thriller is taking. London society is rocked by the scandal of a murder, with the upper classes mixing with the sorts of ruffians that make up the lower orders. Young Pleasance show a wit beyond their years and a remarkable amount of energy that many older ensemble groups would take well to note, before collapsing in a corner, weeping.
As this is youth theatre, you may not be surprised that there are plenty of roles for boys in oversized coats that are made for men about thirty years their senior. What is surprising, however, is just how ruthlessly efficient every single performance in the group is. Now, ‘efficient’ might sound like a rather dry backhanded compliment, but it’s difficult to overstate just how impressive an undertaking the gang have achieved, managing to race through at least 150 characters while at the same time delivering some memorable standalone performances.
This is a breathless, tightly choreographed play with a big cast working hard to race through countless set changes with lots of knowing winks and pastiches of 1920’s era melodrama. Walls and doors spin around with dizzying speed as the cast rocket through courtrooms, high streets and corridors (and many other locations) with a crowd of rubber-necking bystanders jostling for more gossip. The pastiche is relentless, and delivered with such wit and energy as to leave you joyously slack-jawed.
Such successful ensemble acting can actually have its mild disadvantages: everyone is so good at supporting one another that it’s impossible to pick out a ‘star’ performer aside from those that you’d naturally gravitate toward anyway. Many clichés are cheerfully present and correct, from the hard as nails Ealing Comedy style bruiser, to the Louise Brooks-bobbed femme fatale – flirting, bartering and garter-belting her way through a so-called ‘dodgy accent’. While it’s undoubtable that this production owes a great deal to a steady hand from the director, each member of the cast deserves kudos for delivering the joke so well, particularly in scenes where the gag is deliberately over-laboured (an interrogation in a sweet shop constantly being interrupted by over-excited kids spending their pocket money). The company is a well-oiled machine, and that’s without even stopping to think of the frantic costume and set changes that must be happening backstage with only seconds to spare.
One phrase that hardly turns up in theatre reviews anymore, due to tiresome overuse, is ‘tour-de-force’. However, it’s entirely appropriate here. It’s difficult to think of a harder working group on the fringe.