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Brighton Year-Round 2021

The Cat and the Canary

Bill Kenwright

Genre: Adaptation, Dark Comedy, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal Brighton


Low Down

Directed by Roy Marsden, Designed by Takis, Lighting by Chris Davey with Sound Design by Dan Samson.

CSM’s Simon Bannister, DSM Katie Newton, Technical Assistant and SM Robert Laws, Head of Wardrobe Helen Tsingos, Costumer Supervisor Caroline Hannam. Till November 6th.


‘twas a rough night. Not just the storm on the moors ushering in a brass-syncopated score from around 1940 – more on that later. Nor the screams of lead Tracy Shaw, whose performance alone furnishes a fine excuse to see this name-studded cast. It’s that I’m convinced sure-footed producer Bill Kenwright’s playing at time travel, two weeks in a row.

Last week the queasy 2014 adaptation of classic 1988 black comedy Heathers took a packed audience by er, storm. Back to the Future imperfect works for many, even with moral compass chucked overboard. This week we’ve another storm though it’s in (again) sound designer Dan Samson’s gift.

Title The Cat and the Canary sounds pure Edgar Wallace: in fact he should sue for it beyond the grave. But you’d think it’s 1951. Excellent costumes proclaim it, though language is sweary and updated, thanks to adaptor Carl Crose (yes former co-artistic director of innovative company Kneehigh!), and a 20-year dead benefactor’s called Cyrus West. How American. Cat’s cradle.

Unravel. John Willard’s 1922 black comedy is clearly a Wallace spoof – think Wallace’s The Lady Vanishes, also brought here by Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Company, which brought us an oddly frozen P.D. James and Kenwright’s other franchise the Agatha Christie Company. Many are directed by ex-Inspector Dalgleish actor Roy Marsden, here bringing the fifth CTC of a play mostly known for its 1927, 1939, and 1978 film incarnations. So setting it in the early fifties is like restoring a missing link.

Willard’s riffing off something he thinks silly but the films take him at face value and the experienced, serious Marsden’s trying to retrofit it as a classic chiller with laughs. Christie’s witty Spider’s Web comes to mind, which you might just have caught here back in 2008. And Crose – responsible too for a welcome introduction of diversity and subplot – studs it with one-liners and hopes the whole team can run with them.

They do, but only latterly do they demand: ‘wait – isn’t this meant to be…’ So imagine Willard sighing in elegant drawl: ‘Yes guys, this is meant to be funny.’ So maybe the world sees it different, but wait for the denouements. Spoiler: the original alligator-infested swamp is half-drained; this is Dartmoor. We don’t do such things. Wait for the dogs. Or cats.

Plot then. Twenty years to the night after psychiatrist Cyrus West dies (he actually proclaims it on a gramophone record; does he take cyanide to oblige?), his descendants stumble off from the moors to learn who’ll inherit his wealth including this crumbly house with a criminal asylum the only neighbour (ah ha!), and some hidden family jewels stolen from India (Wilkie Collins, start spinning).

Britt Ekland’s uber-housekeeper Mrs Pleasant plays it straight repeating the phrase ‘something eevil’ – surely she could have been named Mrs Lumqvist, as the original was a Miss Liu – and Eric Carte’s upright sonorous solicitor Roger Crosby both preside. He’s full of portent and sotto voce loyalty. Ekland pushes the cod-macabre written into her role. Crosby’s noted something amiss already.

At midnight, ‘heritage hunters turn into prey’ the blurb says. Not before we discover early on that Tracy Shaw’s novelist Annabelle West is going to be centre stage – whoever inherits, being nearest in blood. Old West stipulates his unknown potential legatees get ranked that way, and if the first is dead or insane (runs in the family) then the next gets it. There’s even a second record. Walls crack open, shadows loom, people get declared insane, and furry paws will never seem the same.

Shaw’s absolute poise, her way of registering warmth even in dismissal of old flames, her tendresse for the unfortunate, her frights: all this proclaims someone who centres this genre-lurching piece and gives it a bit of heart.

It helps the three male potential legatees have all declared love for Annabelle: she’s already had short affairs with self-loving actor Charlie Wilder (Ben Nealon) and PTSD boxer Harry Blythe with a trigger-temper and indifference to fortune (Gary Webster). And there’s devoted stolid vet Paul Jones (Antony Costa) who names the years months and days since he last met Annabelle. Nealon’s appealing as a slipping-down actor/gambler, with the best line. ‘I’m not scared of large empty houses. I’ve played the Sunderland Empire.’ Webster makes his demons and honesty believable, Costa exudes solidity even if Jones is perpetually scared.

There’s a strong performance from Marti Webb’s Susan Sillsby who like Shaw knows exactly how to navigate this hybrid. Her comedy routine revolves round wanting to leave immediately, and denying alcohol – and to her niece Cicily, who’s an Indian princess neatly taken by Priyasasha Kumari.

Whilst Annabelle’s changing (charged with opening a riddle to find the necklace, I mean….) Martin Carroll’s warder Hendricks stumbles in too, proclaiming there’s an escaped lunatic, whom Wilder’s heard of. Later on you’ll blink to see Jack Taylor as a Bobby.

 Designed by Takis, the main drawing-room set takes the usual thriller recession effect to extremes, with stage left a pseudo-book-furnished wall with Cyrus’ portrait dominating, behind which is a safe. Cyrus looks a bit like composer Maurice Ravel. Stage right’s the door and upstage walls and statues (some of these dot the place) and blind 1930s-style curved veranda windows. We briefly get a minty green bedroom fitted inside this for the opening of Act Two, with a modern four-poster and incongruous Athena-style 1980s portraits of staring eyes stage left. More time travel. Lighting by Chris Davey deploys light-dimming, lightning and blackouts, with efficient sound design by Dan Samson, more tonally inflected than last week’s obligatory Heathers blast.

And it is a blast, so long as you don’t get seasick with the lurch from chiller to chill-out laughter, and the way Willard wickedly dispatches a quadruple-denouement to send up Wallace. The cast, if no-one else, have clearly long felt this in Act Two (we’re in their seventh week), and you feel they’ve marched into Willard’s play, taken it over and proclaimed the unravelling a farce. Listen spectrally and you can hear him whisper from the beyond: By Jove, they’ve got it!

So that score? It’s from the 1939 film incarnation, deeply impressive and naturally out of place, though quite possibly Samson thought that’s the point. Ernst Toch (1887-1965) was a major Viennese emigré composer and this incursion into Hollywood noir can’t disguise the quality of brass and percussion writing. Might play one of his string quartets to recover.

If you’re a Classic Thriller Theatre Company fan, don’t hesitate. It’s been a hit-and-miss series, less sure-footed than the Christie brand. Grateful though we can be to Kenwright for trying out these creaky creepies, a serious bit of thought ought to go in to just what genres they are first.