FringeReview UK 2018
Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Theatre Company moves on to Edgar Wallace. Directed by Roy Marsden the production deploys Julie Godfrey’s grand single set. Chris Davey’s lighting throws bright daylight on upper reaches, with a little lightning in the windows. Dan Samson’s otherwise discreet sound design includes period hits before and after. Alex Stewart’s costumery features in many changes.
After the Agatha Christies and last year P D James, Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Theatre Company has moved on to something more arcane. The astonishingly successful, prolific Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) is remembered if at all from old serials on Radio 4 Extra; and for such works as The Four Just Men (1905, his first novel) and Sanders of the River (1911).
‘The king of the detective thriller’ increasingly turned to plays and screenwriting. An innovator in many ways he’s also of his time and this 1931 play adapted by Antony Lampard would sound impressive on radio; though it was made into a 1940 film starring Marius Goring.
That version differs in a bolted-on love interest. At first sight this adaptation by someone primarily working in TV and with a roster of several TV stars might have seemed better-suited to TV too. Still we’d have missed the sumptuousness in a blur of rapid edits; and the work’s period-piece qualities might have been smothered in production values.
As it is, this Kenwright vehicle features several returning actors from James’ A Judgement in Stone, and with similar production values. Also directed by Roy Marsden (Inspector Dalgleish) it looms impressively in Julie Godfrey’s grand single set, the entrance hall to Mark’s Priory, home of the aristocratic Lebanon family. Tall warm stonework with crests and memorial tablets tower above with very few items to distract. There’s two seats, one grand throne squatting upstage, never used; the other’s sat on mainly by a detective sergeant. He’s a magnet for coffee cups; he and his superior can’t escape these adrenalin shots. They then pace up and down. Upper and lower orders waft by on wine instead.
Various exits throw minimal shadows in the relentless lighting Chris Davey casts onto the scene, with bright daylight playing warm gules on upper reaches, with a little lightning in the windows. The sound’s thunder and a rather over-produced scream punctuate Dan Samson’s otherwise discreet sound design including period hits before and after.
Beyond the set, another glory is Alex Stewart’s hectic costumery, both fancy dress and later, including green-piped flunky uniforms and various period dresses. It’s only when they shuffle about after an early exhilarating conga, that you feel the hallway’s a bit deadening, the actors moving in duets and threes like chessboard figures unable to shift any way but diagonally. You start wondering when rook will take pawn.
A servant is murdered. Then someone a bit more important, though the family see this as inconvenient, the victims barely human. Which is unfortunate since the police have already arrived: Gray O’Brien’s Chief Inspector Tanner holds the narrative thread together with some gravitas and sidelong shrewd glances, diced with sudden dispatch. O’Brien’s known for The Loch, Peak Practice, Casualty and as Tony Gordon in Coronation Street. His sidekick is Cambridge lawyer-turned policeman Detective Sergeant Totti: Oliver Phelps, makes his stage debut having played the character of George Weasley in Harry Potter. Occasionally we almost lose the clarity of his vocal projections when turned upstage. But he lopes forward with authority and in a few quick moments with tenderness.
Denis Lill from The Royal and Only Fools and Horses takes the ageing lothario, Dr Amersham, up to no good. Lill conveys a hint of menace, a lesser Judge Brack out to entrap another Hedda Gabler. Like everyone here though, we’re not treated to true motive.
Lady Lebanon is the chief obstacle steadfastly refusing to hand over a key to a mystery storeroom. Deborah Grant’s known from Not Going Out and Bergerac with much stage work; here she’s impressively burnished and so disdainful you can hear her lips smack with the relish of dismissing her inferiors like the long-suffering butler Philip Lowrie’s Kelver – known as Dennis Tanner in Coronation Street. Like Grant, Lowrie knows how to centre everything with his voice. He cuts icy upper-crust servility with a just sense of position which includes his own respectability. Some of the nicest social observation comes from Wallace’s and Lampard’s exposition of Kelver’s self-worth. This far, Lowrie gestures, and no further.
That’s a more privileged position than his ‘better’: poor semi-blackmailed second cousin Isla Crane (April Pearson, from Skins) is employed as secretary. She’s also being bullied into marriage with the young Lord Lebanon by his redoubtable mother. Happily for her someone else takes an interest but as the play progresses her promise of agency and perhaps romance is confined to a few screams; though one hopes for the best.
Crane certainly doesn’t expect that from her expected, Lord Lebanon’s taken by another Kenwright regular from the Agatha Christie Company: Ben Nealon from Soldier Soldier. Nealon’s character mixes raffish over-indulgence with an alarming cheerfulness about being knocked over the head or drugged with laced whisky.
And what of the sinister flunkeys? There’s Callum Coates’ nimble, shifty Brook, and even more Glenn Carter, famous as Jesus in the musical and film of Jesus Christ Superstar. If you look closely there’s a vintage ‘70s pigtail. Carter’s rather fine as a kind of aristo’s enforcer.
Other roles include the flirty loquacious Mrs Tilling, Rosie Thomson’s welcome earthy relief, where deliberately dropped hints undermine her betters. Her long-suffering husband Owen Oldroyd’s recently appeared in very different plays: Ink and The Goat. Here as Tilling he glimmers with hurt and temper emitting semi-articulated bafflement with presence. Joshua Wichard’s Studd the chauffeur suggests a man rather too good for just that job, as if he’s come down in the world.
Despite gestures to modernity – a disdain for hidebound class in any case de rigeur for 1932 – there’s plot-points and cunning misdirections I don’t believe. But Wallace as plotter knows what he’s about and ties up fiendishly. His core rationale’s unexpected, well prepared and plausible. The title’s redundant but the end when it comes is surprisingly swift and economical.
Director Marsden knows about presence and inwardness. Here though in a formulaic play where no character is allowed it, he seems unconvinced too; his best suit is pace. His mostly very fine cast try an expressive pause or cameo – indeed it’s almost a series of cameos without leads: it’s our imagination that makes these of the police. Bar a flicker of backstory – Totti’s father as Tanner’s mentor, and there’s a hint of reciprocal paternalism – we end knowing no-one.
This is still something of a vintage treat, a rare opportunity to see the old master in action. But either all Wallace sounds much better on the radio – this certainly would – or there’s finer drama in Wallace’s vast output. We can look forward to that.